“The days of our years are threescore years and ten….” Many people have heard that adage, which appears to imply a biblically mandated life expectancy of 70 years. But in fact there is more to Psalm 90:10. It continues, “and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
Or, to consult a more modern translation of the ancient Hebrew (the New International Version): “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”
A rather gloomy outlook for this writer, who happens to turn 70 today, Friday, August 12, 2022.
Still, if there is one thing I’ve learned during the past three score and ten, it’s that the future is not knowable; indeed, neither is the past fully, given imperfect memories and historical records written by the winners of humanity’s many conflicts.
A life of privilege
The phrase in that subheading means different things to different people, different classes, different races, even different genders. In my case, it’s not the standard capitalist version of money, mansions and Mercedes Maybachs; I’ve worked nearly without respite since I was 17, was 38 when I bought my first new car, and still live paycheck to paycheck.
No, in my case the privileges were being born in a peaceful, wealthy country (Canada) to loving parents, enjoying mostly good health, access to a good education in a bygone era when we members of the working class could get one without accumulating mountains of debt, good friends, and remarkable opportunities to experience the marvels of our world.
Researching this article, I dug up one I wrote exactly five years ago on my blog to mark my 65th birthday, which included this passage:
“I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the monuments to mankind’s cruelty and folly – Dachau, a Somosista dungeon, Alcatraz, the Colosseum, Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, the Berlin Wall, even Armageddon itself – but also to the best of humanity: the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem and the Statue of Liberty in New York, to name only two.
“I’ve had the opportunity to see the icons of some of the world’s great religions – the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, the Holy Sepulcher, the Sistine Chapel, Angkor Wat and Borobodur – and great monuments to mankind’s quest to make its own way beyond the guidance of ancient scriptures: the parliaments in Westminster and Ottawa, to name only two….
“I’ve been inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, climbed the Eiffel Tower, stood on top of the World Trade Center. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa (she’s small), Michelangelo’s David (he’s big), Venus de Milo (she’s disarming – sorry, old joke), and the Phantom of the Opera. And basked in the beerful bliss of blues clubs in Bangkok and San Francisco.”
But of course there are also many regrets, laments over lost opportunities. One is my failure to learn more from my father about his experiences in the Royal Navy during World War II. He rarely spoke of that time and I never pressed him on it. My mother was a little more forthcoming about surviving the London Blitz, but again, I know few details.
Both of them have now gone, she too young, he around the age I reach today.
It matters because like my parents, I am a pacifist. It’s a very easy philosophy for someone like me who has rarely experienced violence; I was in a war zone only once, very briefly, in Nicaragua during the CIA-backed Contra terror, and was never in any real danger.
(The only time I heard a gunshot was when a tipsy Sandinista soldier ogling bikinis on a west-coast beach accidentally discharged his rifle; a doctor I was traveling with patched up the minor wound of the unfortunate victim.)
But my father and mother were for years in the midst of unimaginable violence that killed tens of thousands of their countrymen and women. Yet my parents were among the gentlest souls I have ever known; how could that be? A mystery, too late to be solved.
If it bleeds it leads
Eventually and largely by accident, I became a journalist, a trade that lives off of violence and war. To be a pacifist in such a trade is in a way a conflict of interests, yet our training in the art of “objectivity” provides a shield of sorts.
Still, during periods of hyped-up jingoism such as the current phase of blue-and-yellow flag-waving since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, coinciding with apparently deliberate provocations in nuclear-armed China’s near abroad, the shield is sorely tested.
So, will I get the opportunity to grapple with five more years of trouble and sorrow, to reach that four-score goal? The future is unknowable, and that’s probably a good thing. But we can take solace in the assurance that come what may, the only true enemies are hate and violence, and that the best among us have shown that those foes can be defeated, if we have the will.
David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.