Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Some time after the death of Agosto I remembered a conversation I had had with Sally, our school nurse. That conversation had been after the death of Agosto’s mother.

Sally had explained that people living besides rice fields can get infected with bacteria that cause Leptospirosis. The Leptospirosis can lead to encephalitis. One symptom of the illness can be a big red spot, a purpura. Agosto had had a purpura on his thigh. I wondered if the doctors in Bogor had got their diagnosis correct?

Life continued and various sick children I had encountered during my walkabouts got better. Two children recovered from typhoid, one recovered from tetanus, and one had her tonsils out. Aisa was nearly rid of her TB.

Min was growing bigger, and his behaviour, like that of a two year-old, could still be difficult on occasions. One-eyed Mustapha, frustrated by Min’s occasional obstinacy, had given up his attempts to be Min’s friend and minder. As a result, Min was being looked after increasingly by his older brother Wardi. I wondered how long Wardi would be willing to be Min’s minder. Wardi was going to get married to a beautiful Sundanese girl.

The garden in front of Jakarta’s little, white, classical-style Anglican church is a peaceful place, even though it is in the centre of Jakarta, opposite a major traffic roundabout and the busy Aryaduta Hotel. One Sunday, at the get-together in the garden after the morning service, I found myself in conversation with a tall, thin, Danish businessman called Ben. There was something both tranquil and jovial about the young man.

"So, where does evil come from?" I asked Ben, as we sipped orange juice. I had been telling him about the death of Agosto and about Mukmin’s accident to his eye; and that morning’s sermon had mentioned evil.

"Have you heard of Axel Munthe?" asked Ben. "The Swedish doctor who wrote about his life in his villa on Capri."

"The Story of San Michele," I said. I had read this beautiful book.

"Well, Munthe puzzled about God appearing to be so kind on the one hand in giving us the beauty of an island like Capri, and appearing to be so cruel on the other hand in letting a small child suffer a long painful choking death. Munthe described the agony of holding the quivering hands of patients who were dying. Now, I think we all share Munthe’s puzzlement at some time."

"Yet you still attend church," I said. "I hardly ever come here. What’s your answer to the puzzle of life?"

"Maybe the kingdom of heaven is within us. Maybe it is us who cause illness. When I was aged about thirteen, I used to have asthma. I used to wonder what it was that was taking my breath away? Then I decided that the problem was anger and conflict with my parents and friends and avoidance of the rough and tumble of teenage life. When I relaxed and came to accept the people around me, I got better."

"But is all illness psychological?" I asked.

"Let’s take the question of why someone keeps on getting ill or having accidents. For example, I might have a number of different symptoms but they may have just one underlying cause, such as insufficient love. This lack of love may give me high blood pressure. This symptom, high blood pressure, can be treated with pills; but if the lack of love is still there, a new symptom can emerge, such as glaucoma. I can get the glaucoma treated, but the lack of love is still there and may lead me to having an accident or some incurable disease. And after death I might be reborn with some handicap. In other words this life is only a tiny part of my education."

"So love is the key?"

"Heaven, paradise or nirvana are supposed to be places of oneness and harmony. To get harmony and balance in my life I have to love absolutely everyone; I have to always handle anger, fear and guilt in a sensible way; I have to have no selfish longing for money or revenge or power."

"Getting ill could be caused by poverty and germs," I pointed out, thinking of Agosto’s impoverished circumstances.

"I agree," he said, with a big smile. "But why does one child get typhoid and another not? I’m in favour of improving nutrition and hygiene, but I believe we also have to consider deeper causes. We can also consider the Buddhist argument that suffering is inevitable in a finite world."

"Finite world?"

"In a finite world like ours, you get opposites, light and dark, male and female, good and evil. Some conflict is inevitable, some illness is inevitable and some suffering is inevitable."

"It can be difficult for some people to believe there’s any meaning in life when they see a child dying."

"I agree," said Ben. "But for life to have come about, you probably need that something that we call God. Think of my cat playing with a word processor and accidentally typing out the works of Hans Christian Andersen. So many things had to be just right in order for life to come about. It suggests some kind of spirit or consciousness behind it all."

"Unless you have an infinite number of universes?"

"There may be parallel universes, and maybe one day my cat will produce Thumbelina and the Ugly Duckling. You know the thing that convinces me most about there being a meaning in life is the near-death experience. Opinion polls have shown that millions of people have had these."

"That’s when someone has been declared dead by the doctor," I said. "But they come back to life and describe having seen a bright light and having encountered something like angels."

"Yes, sometimes. But the important point is this. Some of these people have described floating out of their bodies and being able to see and here things, even in rooms next door to where they were lying dead."

"So you think that consciousness does not need the brain?"

"Exactly! And another thing. Look at the patterns in life. The more you give, the more you get. You reap what you sow. Forgive and you’ll be forgiven. I’ve found these things are true. There seems to be a sort of divine law."

"If there’s a divine law, why do we get mosquitoes?"

"Free will. Maybe each individual life-form chooses what it wants to become. And some life-form chose to become a mosquito."

"That’s possible, but I’ve always been puzzled by why one being chooses to be good and another being chooses to be evil. The sermon talked about Adam making the wrong choice."

"We all seem like competing individuals making individual choices, but ultimately we are all one individual. What I mean is that we all came from God, and we all have the same lessons to learn, in a whole variety of lives. Maybe in a previous life I was like Hitler. So we are all pretty much the same. I am no better than you and you are no better than me."

"You obviously believe in free will."

"We have Sartre’s ‘dreadful freedom’ to choose our way of living, and the dreadful worry that we’re responsible for all our actions."


"Maybe it’s not so dreadful. Coming here to Jakarta gave me fantastic freedom. Away from the conventions of Europe, I could do anything here. I could be a saint or a sinner, a cow boy or a clown. That’s why faith is important."


"Kierkegaard has a story."

"Someone else mentioned him." I was remembering Carmen.

"A prince, that is God, wants to marry a humble girl, that is the human who has no true knowledge of what life is all about, the human who sees life as possibly meaningless. The prince can marry her only if she loves him for his goodness, not because he is rich and powerful. If he shows her his wealth and power, she may marry him for the wrong reasons, so he hides his powers and the benefits of marrying him. The girl has to make a leap of faith. She has to have faith in the absurd teachings of Jesus."

A dark haired woman with Italian-good-looks had been listening in to the latter part of our conversation. Ben introduced her to me as his wife. Her warm smile suggested she was as good-natured as her husband.

"We’ve got to go," said Ben. "Lunch invitation in Tanah Kusir. Hope I’ve not bored you."

"Not at all," I said, "You’ve given me a lot to think about. And what you’ve been saying is a lot more logical than most sermons."

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