Only the good die young; it’s an idea that has been around forever, or since about 445 BC, when dying young must have been a lot more common than it is today. The origins of the saying go way back to a proverb by Herodotus, who, all those millennia ago, wrote: ‘Whom the Gods love die young.’ When faced with an untimely death, there is something about the phrase that serves to ease our pain, even momentarily. Maybe we believe that those who died too soon were spared what Yeats called, ‘a world more full of weeping than you can understand.’ I often wonder what my late husband K. would say if he could see the weeping that is unfolding in the world since he left it. “Where have all the good people gone?” I ask him. Silence. I watch the news from home and abroad and struggle to hear kind and compassionate voices, rational and reasonable positions. “I suppose kindness and compassion aren’t in the job description for leadership.” I’m elbowing him again, sneaking up on him, making a statement rather than asking him a question that he won’t answer. Except this time he does, from somewhere inside my head. “Of course they’re part of the job description. Kindness and compassion are out there in abundance and don’t you forget it. Keep looking.”
It is easy to forget, though, as outrageous behaviour seems to have become normalised. I feel inured to what I once found shocking; I’m almost expecting bad behaviour. That a world leader can make a statement about being able “to stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” then laugh, should shock us. Throwaway (or carefully placed?) statements like this encourage us to pull out a shovel, dig a deeper trench and hunker down, surrounded by the protection of your ‘own sort’. People do use monstrous words that come from their dark side, but entrenchment won’t help any more than John and Yoko’s ‘Bed-In for Peace’. On second thoughts, there are worse responses than taking to one’s bed! C. talked me through his not uncommon philosophy: that none of us – even those who seem to be tyrants – are entirely good or entirely bad (the latter I sincerely hope to be true). Each of us possess shades of colour, like clouds passing over a sky, each of us have the potential to act in goodness or to divide. We have cloudless days when the sun warms and illuminates us, and we have everything in between: white wisps, grey lumps amassing in the distance, and black mountainous storm clouds ready to tumble in torrents. I want to believe C.; I want to believe that we can pull ourselves out from behind the barbed wire and sandbags that defend our trenches and that not all of the good die young.
‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’,by W.H. Auden
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.