Last week was uneventful, primarily because I don't think I've seen so much concentrated rainfall in the space of a week, and anyway, I'm under medical house arrest. Irritatingly, I've missed events that would have resulted in a much better Notebook than the one you're getting: the Govanhill Festival, Darren 'Loki' McGarvey at the Edinburgh Fringe, and dinner in Rothesay with two outstanding writers and journalists, Ian Jack and Neal Ascherson.
A group of conditions called Post-Transplant Lymphociteproliferation Disorder (PTLD), a rare disorder that involves the immune system and causes white blood cells called lymphocytes to multiply out of control, is my current and latest health worry. At the moment, we're not sure how serious this is likely to become, but although feeling healthy enough, I'm at serious risk of infection, so I need to avoid public places.
But it's not knowing where this disorder will lead that is the worst aspect of it. The famously anxiety-inducing 'known unknown' is the real killer of peace of mind. I read recently that prisoners on deathrow given a stay of execution rarely thank their legal saviours. It was taken as an example of our capacity for ingratitude. Fancy not thanking your legal team for saving your life? But there's another, more plausible explanation: nothing is more psychologically satisfying than 'closure' – if you are lucky achieve it – which you certainly don't get with a stay of execution. All you get is more waiting, and more uncertainty. After a while you want to say: 'Enough already. Just make a bloody decision one way or the other'.
It's the psychological impact of an illness that is often the hardest aspect. Physical symptoms can be a trial, but it's dealing with the unsettling combination of boredom, frustration and fear that proves particularly challenging. Human consciousness, in these circumstances, is unpleasant.
The burden of consciousness
It is often said that human beings can suffer in ways that other animals can't because we are conscious in a way that most animals aren't. Intrigued by consciousness, I often ask myself, how come this lump of matter doesn't just move and scan the Earth, but also has intentions and purpose which propels said lump throughout its short life?
Animals are aware of their immediate environment, but the human can both remember and anticipate events to an extraordinary extent. With the ability to project ourselves back and forward means we are uniquely prey to guilt (remembering past transgressions) and anxiety (worrying about the future). The consequences of our extra cognitive power – guilt and anxiety are the twin towers of depression – can be uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable, states of mind. Interesting philosophical questions arise too, for which there are still few answers: Why we are conscious at all? What is consciousness for?
In What is consciousness for?
(New Ideas in Psychology
) Pierson and co posit a compelling suggestion: consciousness is essential for voluntary action; and voluntary action is what allows for behavioural flexibility. Being able to choose between various courses of action, selecting the one that makes most sense in our current circumstances, is highly adaptive. Unlike other animals, we are not trapped with a set of instinctive responses. We learn from past experience and choose behaviours that stand a good chance of surviving in a fast moving and rapidly changing context. But with voluntary action, and the concomitant capacities to choose and to learn, comes the recognition that we are responsible for our past mistakes, and will be decisive in shaping our future.
It is exhilarating and frightening in equal measure, as any good existentialist will tell you. But would we have it any other way? Is it not worse to have no conscious control? A sobering dilemma is that we can't really be happy either way. Which brings me to an absorbing book I'm currently reading: The Happiness Trap
by Russ Harris, whose thesis is that the drive to be happy makes us miserable.
Aamer and Jimmy
Although confined to barracks, on Saturday, taking a risk, I ventured out for an hour with the rest of the family to see my daughter and niece's gig. Suitably armed with anti-bacterial wipes, avoiding public transport, and depriving myself of fluids so as not to need to go to the loo (a trial at the best of times at these venues), I'm so glad I did. They were phenomenal. That day also happened to be the day my dad (Jimmy Reid) died nine years ago. He would be immensely proud of his granddaughters. Nine years. I'm often asked what he'd think about politics today. How would he have responded to the turmoil? The world has changed so much since then, I just don't know any more. He'd be deeply unhappy, that's for sure.
With dad in mind, the 7th annual Jimmy Reid Foundation lecture has been announced. It takes place on Thursday 10 October and will be given by Scotland's leading human rights lawyer and the rector of the University of Glasgow, Aamer Anwar. It will take place in the university's Bute Hall where Jimmy gave his famous rectorial address, Alienation
in 1972. The title of Aamer's lecture is The struggle for justice and freedom in Scotland
. In it, he will not only discuss the state of justice, equality and human rights in Scotland but also examine how the battle for these can be pursued in the face of opposition from the Scottish establishment. This much I do know about what Jimmy would be thinking: he'd be absolutely delighted and honoured that Aamer, such a fitting choice, will give the lecture in his name and in that historic place.
Tickets are available from: www.reidfoundation.org