‘The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.’— from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, attributed to one of King Edwin of Northumbria’s chief men during his 7th century reign.
Having recently been diagnosed with tuberculosis, from which he would eventually die, Franz Kafka wrote ‘The meaning of life is that it stops.’ All of us seek meaning in our lives in some way or other, and thinking about our mortality makes this search more feverish. The knowledge of death seems to be one of the main drivers of our need for meaning. Having a sense of meaning in our lives softens the idea of death and allows us to apply a comforting narrative arc to our existence. When meaning falls away and we see that each one of us is nothing more than the result of a long line of coincidences and that nature is indifferent to us, we are enveloped in a feeling of existential chaos. We need meaning.
In the past, our main source of meaning was religion. Christianity and Islam both involve afterlives. Reincarnation is a tenet of Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism. If we lived according to a certain philosophy and faithfully followed its rules, death would become irrelevant; a short, painful episode before existence continued in a different form. The Ars Moriendi, written in the 15th century, was an instructional manual on the art of ‘dying well’. It included guidance on how to avoid despair, suggested rites and prayers and encouraged the dying to maintain their faith. Death was but a step on a great journey.
Now, our lives — our fleeting, fragile lives — are far more precious.
Since the enlightenment and the spread of atheism, humanity has suffered a dearth of myths regarding mortality. Advances in science have given us much, but have corroded our ability to deal with death. Without religion, finding a deep meaning to life is far harder. As a philosophy for existence, the capitalist dream — for some, religion’s replacement — has very little to say about death apart from that it should be avoided.
Theist religions long ago alienated us from nature; now science has alienated us from religion. It has revealed death to be terrifyingly arbitrary, meaningless and final. The modern, materialistic idea of what life is about avoids confronting this fact. It doesn’t fit; so, we push the thought of death out of mind as soon as it appears. But we need to reconcile with our mortality to live life without death’s shadow hanging over us. The problem is that we no longer have a set system for how.
Regardless, for many of us, there comes a time when our body decides that we must. This was what happened to Wilko Johnson in 2013.
Wilko Johnson — real name John Wilkinson — was the guitarist in 70s pub rock band Dr. Feelgood, best known for snappy blues rock songs like She Does It Right and Roxette. Johnson, who wore a black suit and a bowl haircut, became known for playing the guitar like a machine gun. When the music got intense, Johnson, with a manic look on his face, would speed out to the front of the stage, chest and chin jutting out like he was about to attack you, then reverse back just as fast, then career from one side to the other, like a ball pinging around inside a squash court.
After he left Dr. Feelgood Johnson joined a series of other Essex and London bands, including Ian Dury and the Blockheads, while continuing a solo career. But his output was less than prolific. His wife died in 2003, and he suffered from depression.
As Johnson grew older his already gaunt features became accentuated, and he lost his hair. His countenance took on such a threatening look that the directors of Game of Thrones cast him in the role of a mute executioner in four episodes during 2011 and 2012.
Johnson was growing old, into a gritty, grumpy Essex geezer with a dark sense of humour. But in 2013 everything changed, when he was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer and given 10 months to live.
On that day, Wilko Johnson, not a religious man, walked out of the hospital and had a revelation.
“I knew it meant I was going to die. I remember walking out of the hospital on a beautiful winter’s day, looking at the trees against the sky. And suddenly I felt this elation. Almost an ecstatic feeling. You are vividly alive. Every little thing you see, every cold breeze against your face, every brick in the road. The very paving stones seem to be shivering. Oh man, it looked so good. Everything was tingling, and I was looking around saying ‘I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive!’ Suddenly everything lifted off of me. Present, future, past… it was all concentrated down into the moment.”
Confronted with his imminent death, Johnson’s perspective on existence changed. The fact that his future had been decided for him allowed Johnson to throw off the shackles of misery and appreciate what a gift it was to be alive; so soon was life to disappear. He declined the offer of chemotherapy, which doctors said could prolong his life by a couple of months, and instead went out on a farewell tour. He appeared on BBC talk shows where he talked about how cancer had transformed him. He could hardly stop smiling.
“I’ve generally, through my life, been a fairly miserable so-and-so. I’m someone who tends to shrink away from people. I would get uptight about the tiniest thing. Now I realise how foolish all that is. Really… it just don’t matter.”
Director Julien Temple began making a documentary about Johnson’s final year, knowing it would end in his death. In it, Johnson muses extensively on the subject of his mortality.
“You step into a different consciousness. All my past experiences are in that other world — I call it ‘BC’, before cancer. I’m living in a different place from other people. I look at a crowded street and think, look at all these people — they’re all subject to mortality! But I’m not, because mine is all established and sorted out. I’ve stopped reading the newspapers, I don’t look at the news on the television. The feeling that I have no future means I won’t be affected by what happens with it. It’s a kind of limbo.”
Throughout 2013 Johnson continued to tour with his band, cheerfully waving goodbye to his fans for what would be the final time. But something odd was happening. A doctor, part-time photographer and fan of Johnson’s saw him play at Koko, London, in October 2013. It was 9 months after his diagnosis and Wilko Johnson was still up and dancing around when he should have been dead, or at least bed-bound.
Johnson went back to hospital. After some more tests, doctors discovered he had a different, rarer type of pancreatic cancer; one that was easier to operate on. But because it had grown so large, operating would still be extremely perilous. Doctors gave him a 15% chance of survival if he underwent it.
Johnson had made peace with his mortality. His depression had vanished. He was happier than he had been in years. But when he was informed that he had a chance of surviving, of not dying after all, he told the doctors to give it a go. They would either cure him or kill him.
After an 11-hour surgery, they managed to remove the tumour. Against all the odds, Wilko Johnson was cancer-free and had his future back. And he felt bemused.
After a year of believing he was about to die, survival was a massive anti-climax. “The reason for all those ideas I had was that I was faced with my imminent dissolution, and you can’t fake that,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “You’re either faced with death or you’re not. I feel like I’m parachuting back into the land of the living and looking around thinking, ‘Oh well.’”
Questioned on what he would do with the years he had got back, he replied, “I don’t know really. I’ve come through this adventure, I’m nearly 68. I can’t learn a new job. Just keep on playing, that’s as far as my planning goes.”
The doctors theorised that had Johnson taken up the offer of chemotherapy to prolong his life by a few months, he probably would not have been strong enough to survive the operation. His decision to accept his imminent death may actually have saved him.
As King Edwin’s chief pondered in 7th century Northumbria, life is like a bird briefly swooping through a warmed room before vanishing back into the winter of eternity. Non-existence is our default state. Our lives — full to the brim with desires, fears, happiness and pain — are a brief interruption. During his illness, Wilko Johnson’s dread of his mortality melted away, as he was confronted with its inevitability and reminded of how incredible it is to exist and know it.
Every second that the universe has existed has been leading to this point; and our lives, and deaths, are the continuation of that great, but essentially meaningless, cosmic story. We are the thinking, feeling part of the universe — that’s our function, and it motivates all our conscious actions. As we struggle with ambitions and disappointments, we could do with being reminded of that. To think and feel and exist is our role, and we’re fulfilling it whether we like it or not — so may as well stop worrying about meaning, and get on with our lives.