Too often, when reading a newspaper, watching television, listening to the radio, we hear about horrible things happening all around us.
The main fears of humanity (wars, earthquakes and epidemics) are all present, and strike us dramatically, through images and words which globalisation and the speed of communication bring into our homes.
The speed at which news travels is a positive element in itself, and allows us to follow news happening thousands of kilometres away from us in nearly real time. But this speed of information also transmits the feeling of fear and uncertainty about our future equally fast.
The terrible images about the war in Iraq are still present in our eyes and minds, evoking the fear that other was can be started, and not necessarily in countries far from our own. Then again, whether it is near or far is no longer that important, seeing as there is the long range missile, and the deadly power of nuclear, bacteriological or chemical weapons, which can be aimed anywhere is the world.
The attack on the Twin Towers in New York, takes us back to a scene where anyone can be attacked, and there is no special behaviour that can defend us from these dangers. The American "Space Defence Shield" against missile attacks which was claimed to be the defender of safety, proved absolutely useless against civil airplanes, flying at a low quota.
As far as wars are concerned, statistics on victims show us that the number of civilians killed is higher than the number of soldiers killed, and that the current tendency in warfare is that of hitting the civilian population more strongly: children, women, the elderly, the ill and the invalid.
In all of this there is the addition of terrorism, which can attack anywhere, by using kamikazes willing to blow themselves up, as long as they can bring with them the highest number of enemies possible.
Our trust in medicine is shaken when we find out that "mysterious" and "mutant" viruses are still rampant in the air and can kill quickly; the fact that this is happening on the other side of the world does not make us feel any safer, since everyone, both healthy and non, can travel daily by plane from one part of the world to the other. We know that this flow of people and merchandise cannot be stopped without stopping the international-based economy of different countries at the same time.
The fear of AIDS is not only for drug addicts or homosexuals, but is now for at everyone who has sexual relations with a new partner. Add to this the news of a killer flu, which can be passed on when an infected person coughs or sneezes or, even worse, by touching objects handled previously by an infected person.
The green masks we see worn by people living in an infected country do not seem to be very good at defending the people wearing them from the virus.
And then there is the idea of staying at home, not going out and being in contact with others; besides being impractical for those leading an active life, this brings us back to Medieval times when, to avoid the plague, people locked themselves in their villages and castles.
To make matters worse there are also the natural disasters to consider: earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, lightening, storms, flooding, drought.
Natural events, which in English Maritime Insurance policies are called "Acts of God", have always hit humanity in an unpredictable and indiscriminate manner.
Sometimes, however it is human activity that damage nature and ignites her fury. With this I mean all the damage, whether direct or indirect that pollution is doing to our planet.
While I was reflecting on this situation, the emotions and sensations I felt a few years ago came to mind, when an earthquake hit lower Piedmont and was felt quite strongly in Liguria.
That day, I was sitting at my desk typing, when I felt the chair under me move and shake. I immediately thought it had to be an earthquake, because I had felt something like that before when there had been another earthquake in Friuli.
Before I could remember what I was supposed to do in similar circumstances (stand next to a load bearing wall? Far away from the windows?), the shaking stopped, leaving my heart beating fast and a feeling of relief, but also of complete impotence.
It was quite clear to me that whether I would be saved or not did not really depend upon my behaviour at all. If the earthquake would have continued, and the building had collapsed, how did I know how the room I was in would have been destroyed? I didn't know at all and couldn't have done anything about it.
I then though that, in the end, death can arrive in other less spectacular and collective ways, and can strike me at anytime. A heart attack, a vase of flowers falling off a balcony just as I'm walking under it, a drunk driver hitting me with his car, a breakdown while I'm driving my motorbike.
Even these events can't be foreseen or avoided.
Those who have faith in religion, give these facts a meaning by attributing them to God: those who do not believe in God, speak about a generic destiny, luck or bad luck, a chance accident that couldn't have been known beforehand.
Obviously, in all of this, risky and death defying behaviour are excluded: I'm talking about speeding in cars or motorcycles, drinking, drug use, dangerous behaviour, extreme sports, accepting life threatening challenges (for example, they say that for every six people who try to climb Mount Everest one of them will die trying).
Getting back to our topic, there have been stories dating back to antiquity which underline how impossible it is for mankind to escape his destiny.
Like the story about the soldier from Samarkand:
"The war has just finished, and the soldiers are celebrating victory by eating, drinking and singing.
One soldier sees an old lady staring at him strangely from the crowd; he wants to run away from that old lady who seems threatening to him.
So he asks his king for his horse so he can run away, and the king gives him the fastest horse he had.
The soldier jumps into the saddle and gallops for two days and two nights. He then arrives in Samarkand; he gets off the horse and mixes in with the crowd in the street.
And then, after a few steps, he meets the old lady again, the same one he had seen in the city he had escaped from, so he asked her why she was looking at him so evilly.
The old lady answered, "I wasn't looking at you evilly but with surprise; I knew I had an appointment with you, today, here in Samarkand, and due to the distance, I was afraid you wouldn't have made it in time."
That old lady was Death, and the story tells us that you cannot escape your destiny."
I have happened to talk to different people, who have had a serious car accident; all of the people, while telling me about it have underlined the chance leading to the accident itself; for example: "I was in the car, I was listening to some music and wanted to change the CD, so I slowed down a bit and changed it; right after that I was hit by a truck. If I hadn't slowed down to change the music, I would have gone through the intersection a few seconds earlier and I would never have been hit."
Even those who have survived a catastrophe are quite clear about the chances that can lead to life or death; I remember an elderly gentleman who, while talking about the First World War which he had fought in, said: "We were in a group and we were heading towards the enemy who, all of a sudden started shooting at us. The soldiers I had on the left and right of me were hit and died; I continued walking and I don't know why, but I survived."
Or, another veteran who, having missed a train wasn't able to get on the military ship he was assigned to. He arrived late, and they told him that that ship, was hit by an enemy sub just as it got out of the port; it was destroyed and most of the people on board went down with it.
Taking all these elements into consideration, we could conclude that even if our death is part of something that happens to others along with us (wars, earthquakes or epidemics), or whether our death is something singular, that only involves us personally, we can do very little to avoid this final appointment in our lives.
Professor Sheldon B. Kopp compared mankind's life with a bridge: "while Man is crossing it, the devil tries to get him at his back and Death is waiting on the other side ".
The psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, had a Latin phrase carved into the door of his house in Kusnacht (Switzerland); a phrase inviting people to accept their destiny and underlining that "Whether He has been called or not, God will come" (Vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit).
We can also associate another phrase with this, written but the writer Jorge Luis Borges: "The door decides, not the man" (La puerta es la que elige, no el hombre).
What remains in our hands, is the chance to live our lives well or badly, to do good or evil, to leave a positive mark on the world, as little as it may be.
The rules of the monks, "Brother, remember that you must die ", should be interpreted in this way: since I cannot avoid my death, I have to try and give my life meaning, living as best I can. In order to live life to its fullest, I have to know myself fully: knowing oneself means, accepting both the conscious parts of my thoughts and it means not battling with my subconscious, but trying to understand the symbolic meaning and integrate that into my life.
The Man who does not know himself, according to S.B. Kopp, could be compared to a rider trying to tame his horse; the man, knowing himself, realises that he is a centaur, meaning a being that integrates himself into to instinctive nature of his horse as well as the rational behaviour of man.
There are many roads to travel in order to know oneself; psychoanalysis is not the only one, naturally, but it gives those choosing to take it a path to explore along with an "expert traveller", the therapist, who must accompany with respect, care and competence the person who has decided to put himself in his hands.
In conclusion, the rule to follow in life might be the one in this story that the writer Carlos Castaneda adds to his teachings:
A Wiseman and a youth go on a trip to the mountains. At a certain point along the way, the youth realises that his shoes are untied, and stops, putting one of his feet along the edge of the road to retie them.
In that precise moment, a huge rockslide, rolls down from the mountain and destroys the road right in front of them.
"Did you see how lucky we were ? - said the youth - If we hadn't stopped to tie my shoe, we would have been killed by the rockslide ".
"That's true - answered the Wiseman - but the rockslide could have killed us, just because we had decided to stop here".
"Yes, this is also true - said the youth - but what can I do?"
"There is only one thing you can do - answered the Wiseman - tie your shoe impeccably ".
- Mario Bolognari, "Appuntamento a Samarcanda", Abramo Editore, Catanzaro 2004
- Jorge Luis Borges, "Frammenti di un Vangelo apocrifo" from "Elogio dell'ombra", Einaudi, Turin 1969)
- Carlos Castaneda, "A scuola dallo stregone", Ed. Astrolabio Ubalidini, Rome 1970, republished under the title, "Gli insegnamenti di Don Juan", Rizzoli Milan 1999
- Sheldon B. Kopp, "Se incontri il Buddha per la strada uccidilo", Astrolabio Ubaldini Editore, Rome 1975
- Richard Noll, "Jung il profeta ariano", Mondadori, Milan 1999
- Gerars Wehr, "Jung. La vita, le opere, il pensiero", Rizzoli, Milan 1987