Stepping out into the glare of the morning sun on my
doorstep stained with recent rain I stopped at the sight of the butterfly:
buttercup yellow, boldly slashed with black, spangled with royal blue. I was
astonished that it didn’t move as I stepped back quietly, to admire some
more. “They only live for about two weeks” said my husband knowing how
little I know of botany and science. “It’s dead.” He said flatly as I
uncomprehending, waited. I drove off to my chores of the day to a
ridiculously lavish landscape: tropical painting, permutations of green,
mist rising out of curves of the Northern range, reflected now in a ghostly
white translucent butterfly. “We are not so different from that are we?” The
difference between us is that he has accepted our animal nature, our
transience, and I have not.
I linked death to the end of beauty having watched both
being snatched from those I loved. But this butterfly died mid flight, mid
beauty, in the sun. A life of flight, absolute unreflecting freedom,
instinctual pleasure and sudden death. If humans lived like that they would
be called selfish. Yet we are not so different. It’s true that the older we
get the tighter our straitjackets of responsibility and the higher the
stakes in the social pecking order which we work for all our adult lives.
It’s true that some limp into death defeated and no longer beautiful. But
our visceral instinct is not that different from that of the butterfly. Of
wanting a single shot at life on our own terms, of whimsical landings. You
see that spillage in everyone. In the Queen of England who has been seen in
public with a broken handbag and painful heels, and looks happier when out
In her heir apparent, speaking of tampons to a mistress; in
the most reactionary men and women who, in unguarded moments speak of the
most improbable dreams: of being on the stage, quitting jobs, learning to
dance; in regular scandals that plague those in the public eye, from Tiger
Woods, to Sarkozy’s racy private life. Its spillage into freedom that is
frowned upon by society which requires that rules are kept so that the
social contract and order is maintained for the larger good. We believe
freedom to think out of the box, to live inside your head is unseemly to
anyone but the young, but actually it belongs to everyone. We’d be surprised
at the eighteen year old that lives in middle-aged men and women. I
recognized adolescent stirrings when I was sent an email that encouraged
people to eviscerate, respond with their gut.
It goes like this: “What is your idea of perfect happiness?
What is your greatest fear? What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
What is the trait you most deplore in others? Which living person do you
most admire? Your greatest extravagance? What is your current state of mind?
What do you consider the most overrated virtue? On what occasion do you lie?
What is the quality you most like in a man? What is the quality you most
like in a woman? Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “What or who is
the greatest love of your life? When and where were you happiest? Which
talent would you most like to have? What is your most treasured possession?
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? What is your
favourite occupation? What is your most marked
characteristic? What do you most value in your friends? Who is your
favourite hero of fiction? Who are your heroes in real life?
What do you most dislike? What is your greatest regret? How would you like
to die? What is your motto?”
The responses were selfish and needy. Everyone wanted love.
Everyone wanted freedom, fame, excitement. Also altruism. They wanted it for
everyone else too. We could have been hanging around Stonehenge hippies.
Coincidentally, this week I had been reading Richard Dawkins 1976 Classic,
The Selfish Gene which examines the biology of human selfishness. Consider
The selfish gene
“The world of the selfish gene revolves around savage
competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit, and yet, Dawkins argues,
acts of apparent altruism do exist in nature. Bees, for example, will commit
suicide when they sting to protect the hive, and birds will risk their lives
to warn the flock of an approaching hawk.” Astonishingly, Dawkins believes
we can actually alter “the tyranny” of our selfish genes, individually and
collectively through conscious everyday choices. “Be warned,” Dawkins
writes, “that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals
co-operate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect
little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and
altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own
selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to
upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.”
It would be
wonderful to be like the butterfly, diaphanous, of riotious colour, curious,
soaring, self contained. But that wouldn’t last. Also we were different. Not
because of some kind of clumsy societal pecking order but because of the
thing that separates us from animals encompassed in the word we call
“humanity”. Dr Pat Bishop, doyen among our artists spoke of it recently. Of
service which is the core of humanity. “No one has crossed, until the last
one has crossed and some we will have to carry.” The birds and the bees
understand that instinctually. Collective survival depends on us helping the
vulnerable amongst us. In a country with the highest rates of murder in a
non-warring country where at least 300,000 people live below the poverty
line, some 400,000 are functionally illiterate; there are many we have to
carry. With the butterfly we find our fragile transience bearable. Having
once witnessed its freedom, the memory of beauty allows us to bear its