During this strange time, in which teachers and pupils are physically separated, I’ve been starting each week with an assembly delivered by video. It is just one of the ways that we’re creating virtual connections across our school community and, last week, I asked our pupils what they think it means to really live, to live life to the full, and whether this changes over the course of a life.
As a biology teacher I know that children learn about the seven characteristics of living things from quite a young age, but this scientific characterisation can’t get anywhere close to encapsulating what it means to live if you compare humans to nearly any other organism on earth. Humans have a unique desire to learn, discover, invent, collaborate, socialise and to challenge. Over the last few weeks, we have all missed different elements of these dimensions in our lives, with the result being that maybe life hasn’t felt quite as rich as normal.
The author and journalist Matthew Syed explored this theme of the quality of life in his column in The Sunday Times earlier this month. He discussed ‘quality adjusted life years’ – a concept that attributes a score of 1 to a year lived in full health and this score decreases to 0 for a year lived in differing degrees of ill health. But, Syed points out, nobody has compared a year of life in full health in normal times, to a year lived in full health but in lockdown. Surely, the two experiences can’t be given the same score? Health is important but there is so much more to life than just our health when assessing its quality.
In his article, Syed referred to the adventurer George Mallory. Mallory is someone I’ve spoken to our pupils about before, when examining the human capacity to challenge ourselves, and he is undoubtedly a fascinating example of the human spirit for adventure. In the context of thinking about quality of life, Syed chose a quote from Mallory in which he said: “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.” Conquering landscapes and exploring uncharted parts of the world is not what life is about for many of us, but the meaningful part of his words for me is the idea that living is about experiencing joy. For all of us, we will find that joy in different ways.
Right now, there are many aspects of life – some significant and others more trivial – that aren’t possible and their absence from our daily lives might be making it feel a little bit less joyful. Our pupils are missing playing as part of a team, performing on stage together, seeing family outside their own households and, quite simply, hanging out with friends. But I believe that, as important as the ability to experience and share things in each other’s company is to our quality of life, our own attitude to life plays an equally important role.
There can be few people in the UK who haven’t heard of Captain (now Colonel and soon to be Sir!) Tom. At 99, Tom Moore set himself the challenge of walking, using his walking frame, 100 laps of his garden to raise money for NHS Charities Together, to thank the NHS staff who had treated him for cancer and a broken hip. His original aim was to raise £1000 by his 100th birthday at the end of April; by early May, he had raised over £32million. Of course, media coverage played a part in reaching this extraordinary sum, but there was something about Captain Tom’s attitude and spirit that captured people’s hearts and made them want to support him and what he stands for. I think it was something to do with his relentless determination to keep living, to set himself challenges even at the age of 99, and his belief that he could make a difference. His optimism and sense of purpose inspired us and, just before his completed his 100th lap, he said: “To all those people who are finding it difficult at the moment, the sun will shine on you again, and the clouds will go away.”
A life lived to the full is made up of many varied and hugely personal elements. When this current challenge is over, I wonder whether we might be more aware and more appreciative of the things that bring us joy and that make us feel we are truly living life.