I know I’m beginning to sound like a kidnap bore. But I promise this is the last time I bring it up
I would stare at death on my doorstep. It had a beneficial impact on my life
Poor people in the developing world don’t know how lucky they are. They might be starving, or dying of curable diseases, or living in fear for their lives. But at least they’re not suffering from a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, or a mild anxiety brought on by having to choose between a plasma and a flatscreen LCD.
They might not have clean water to drink, or a roof over their heads. But at least they’re not let down by a modern lifestyle that doesn’t quite deliver. Now that’s really depressing. Not even a month’s worth of beauty therapy, spa sessions, reiki massage and colonic cleansing can cure that.
It’s just one of those facts of modern life. People in the west, the surveys say, are unhappy. Life sucks, I keep on hearing, if you have too much money and not enough time. Or at least it does according to all those lifestyle magazines that trick us into believing such blatant rubbish.
It’s one of the great myths of our age, and one you hear voiced by middle-class professionals regularly. Poor people in developing countries are much happier than rich people like us in the west. They’re too busy trying to survive to worry about the little things that get us down. Depression, or at least a mild sense of unease, is an affliction unique to the west.
People in the rest of the world simply can’t afford to be depressed. They don’t have a choice. That’s why they’re happy. Plus they still have big families, unlike us, and live with their grandparents in one room until they die. How lucky is that?
But, of course, we know that a life spent in abject poverty is a life of misery. And we know the majority of the world lives in poverty. That is the real reason, I think, for the nagging sense of dissatisfaction peculiar to our society. It’s our guilt nagging away at us. And no amount of colonic irrigation will wash our guilty consciences clean.
We would be better off spending our money on helping others less fortunate than ourselves. That might actually make us happy. Ironically, it may actually be in our self-interest to be less self-obsessed. If we spent more time thinking about others, we might even be less depressed. But now I’m beginning to sound like your mother, or, God forbid, my ex-wife, and that is depressing. But she’s right, of course. I am the last person to talk. I was selfish and self-obsessed during our marriage, which ended because I only thought about myself.
I wasn’t depressed by that fact, though, mainly because I was too busy after our divorce feeling sorry for myself. But I’m now slowly beginning to realise that to be happy I need to start putting other people first. How do I know that? Because death has a way of revealing the truth when he comes knocking at your door.
In my case, death came to my door, shrouded in a black shawl, holding not a scythe but an AK47. Like Scrooge on Christmas Eve, I was visited by this ghostly apparition in the middle of the night, while I was held hostage by the Taliban earlier this year. (I know I mentioned that fact before, only last week, in fact, in this column. And I’m beginning to sound like a kidnap bore. But I promise this is the last time I will bring it up.)
Anyway, on some nights a Taliban guard would burst into my room, and I would wake up with a jolt to find myself staring at death on my doorstep. After the shock of his arrival had passed away, his presence – and the fear that he might lead me away – had something of a beneficial impact on my life.
Death certainly makes mild anxiety a thing of the past, and it also clears the bowels faster than any colonic irrigation that I’ve heard of. But more importantly, death also shows you where you’ve gone wrong in life, and points you towards the right path. When I faced death I suddenly could see all the mistakes I had made in my past, and how to put them right if I ever got a second chance. Death, ironically, holds the secret of life.
And I can now reveal those amazing truths to you for absolutely no money, guaranteed, and save you the cost of all those self-help books that promise to change your life. Only I know it won’t make any difference. It certainly didn’t change my life. The minute I walked out of that door, and returned to freedom, I walked straight back into my old ways.
Sadly, as I’ve discovered, the truth is only revealed to us at the end of our lives because God knows it’s a waste of time to try to convince us while we’re still alive. We’re simply too busy living to think about what’s really important in life. We save that for when we’re about to die.
But, just so you know, here’s what death reveals to everyone when they think they’re about to die: your mother and ex were right all along and all their cliches are true. We really should have thought about all those poor people in Ethiopia when we refused to eat our greens.
We really should put our children first, and be good providers and protectors to them rather than think of ourselves. We really should have loved and supported our spouses, and returned our friends’ calls when we had the chance. And we can really only ever be happy when we try to help others less fortunate than ourselves. Yep, that’s it I’m afraid. There is no amazing secret that can change your life. It’s so dull it’s almost depressing.
* This week Sean didn’t watch the X Factor, but he did watch the X Factor riots on the television news and thought they looked more like Grease, the musical, than any real riots in Greece.
Note – This article was first published in The Guardian, 11th December 2008.