Although it is almost a cliche to describe life as a road to be travelled, the old man was delighted by his discovery of Roger McGough’s charming poem “The Journey of a Lifetime” with each verse preceded by the children’s cry:
“Are we nearly there yet?
Are we nearly there?
to be told in the first verse that there is still a long, long way to go, and in the final verse:
Yes, old friends, you’re nearly there
Taken the road as far as it goes.
Now the journey of a lifetime
Is drawing to its close.”
Thinking back over his own lifetime, the old man could only think of it as lucky: always a roof over head; always a meal in prospect, though maybe not always one of choice; loving family; companionship. What more could be hoped for?
His mind drifted over the world scene, bringing up an image of another life. A pregnant woman with a small child in tow, struggling out of Syria in order to face a terrifying journey in an open boat that, with great good fortune, might take her to the shore of an unknown country whose language she did not speak, whose customs and religion were unknown to her as she landed with no saleable skills, two mouths to feed now and another one coming. How could that life possibly be compared with his? Another image: of an illiterate nine year old Dinka boy, Deng*, captured from his tribe in South Sudan, marched endlessly across a barren landscape to a vicious camp where he would be trained to use a gun before being forced into a front line to fight people he did not know for reasons that even his leaders did not understand. Surely both would wish that the journey of their lives would soon draw to a close.
It was hard to avoid the conclusion that these differences were merely due to accidents of birth and that their trials were nothing more than chance. Suddenly he asked himself why the word “trials” had come into his mind. It was commonplace to talk about the “trials of life” but these two victims had had absolutely no influence on the factors that led to their miseries so substitute that word “miseries” for “trials”.
Why did so many millions around the world have such appalling roads to travel? Obviously it was a question that had occupied the minds of men at least since the birth of Hinduism, the earliest recorded religion. In a closed village society it would be easy to think that a bad person’s karma would mean that s/he would be reincarnated in a lower life form. Later the Greeks had dreamt up whimsical interventions by the idiosyncratic individuals who were said to live on Mt. Olympus. But those were small societies. On a global scale, with populations in billions and an infinity of situations, those concepts just wouldn’t wash. Instead, were all roads random, dependent on chance and that accident of birth? How the individual travelled their own particular road was, of course, another matter - but was that the result of inherited accident?
The old man sighed and reached for his glass of wine. “Why?”
* Deng Thiak Adut, thanks to humanitarian chance he was taken to Australia, age 15 unable to speak English. He studied, qualified in law and was declared “NSW Australian of the Year in 2016”
His book “Songs of a War Boy” is in the Christchurch. City Libraries.