A chat with a Norfolk farmer gets Charles Handy thinking about the afterlife
You don’t expect to get a little lecture on philosophy or theology from a Norfolk farmer but then Norfolk is a place full of surprises. It even contains unexpected hills which you will find if you try to go cycling there.
One morning I was talking to Mervin, my neighbour and farmer, and we were looking at his field of wheat, pale green now, and shimmering slightly in the breeze in the afternoon, the tips of the stalks just beginning to turn a pale yellow, a foretaste of their summer gold.
So I said to him, “Ah well, these stalks of wheat, they have a short life, but a very sunny one, so I suppose it is quite a happy existence.”
Mervin said, “oh, their life is much longer than you think. Yes it’s true, when the sun ripens them, I’ll bring the reaper out and we will cut them down but that’s not the end, not even what Churchill would call the beginning of the end, it’s just the first phase of their long life. Once they are cut down and the reaper has been, they have to go off to the mill and be processed and eventually turned into flour, which is mixed with water and yeast to become dough and goes into the oven and comes out as bread.”
He said, “I’ve calculated that if this wretched plague comes back again, there’s enough wheat in this field to turn into loaves of bread which will keep the whole village fed for three months. Now that’s a pretty good afterlife, don’t you think? And you Charles,” he said, “after your mortal death, your afterlife will go on. I changed the way I run my business because I read one of your books and there will be many more people who’ll remember something you said to them, something you wrote that helped them to change the way the live or the way they work, and that will be your afterlife. Thousands of people will be turning round in their lives because of you turning in your grave. Like the butterfly twitching its wings to cause chaos and thunderstorms around the world, your afterlife will ripple through other people’s lives. Many artists are much more famous and much richer after they die mortally than when they were alive.
“Sadly of course, you won’t be around to see your new fame or to reap the financial rewards. But, if you sat back now and think as I do, how many ripples you are sending off now, that will go spreading around the world in your afterlife, that’s your gift to humanity.”
Well, I thought to myself, I’d better prepare myself for my afterlife and do some more of these thoughts and musings in case they do ripple around the world and cause people to stop working quite so hard and to think a bit more.
And then I thought well then, after that, what happens? Do I go to heaven or to hell, or do I believe any of that nonsense? Actually, no. But I do remember something called Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher but he was also a pragmatist and he said, there is no proof that God or Heaven exists but you might as well believe in it just in case. After all, if it turns out if there isn’t any God or Heaven, you won’t have lost anything except a few minutes thinking about it. But if it turns out that God in Heaven does exist well, at least you’ve put down your entrance fee as it were, booked yourself a place.
Although I must confess that as someone who gets bored after 20 minutes of lying in the sun on a beach, an eternity of angels singing and blissful sunshine is not something I am looking forward to. I really hope that I just go back to the starry dust from which I originated, an infinite blackness, like going under an anaesthetic and never waking up. That’s the way it happens.
So I say goodbye and thank you to my carer every night, presuming that I will die in the night. And then I wake up, and at first I’m surprised, and then annoyed and then I am actually thinking, oh well, it’s another day, better make something useful, do something useful, have a thought. It might change somebody’s life one day.
Charles Handy’s books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. His latest book, 21 Letters, is now available in paperback and on audiobook. Read more here. Charles suffered a stroke two years ago following the death of his wife in a car crash. This “thought” and others were dictated to his carer.