“I want my feet standing in the mud.”
An intimate conversation with Rev. Graham Long from The Wayside Chapel
Excerpt from Issue 1 of YOKE on love / loss
He wears two watches. One is his regular timepiece. The second watch belonged to his son, James. It stopped at one minute to midnight during the first year of James’ death – a constant reminder of the fleeting nature of life. Graham Long is pastor of the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross, but he is no ordinary pastor, and no ordinary man. At a time when we are becoming fragmented by the technology that we think connects us, but is only making us more lonely, he preaches that all humanity belongs to one another.
Your book is a reminder that life is not all about us, but about being part of something bigger. Is it important for everyone to share the same philosophy?
It’s not about what you’re thinking. What matters is that we’re born hardwired as social beings, and most of our systems exist to undo that fact. Our education system puts people in at one end, and spits individuals out at the other. Everyone’s your competitor, and you need to do better than your neighbour in order to do well in life. This manufactures loneliness. Same with most of our activities, which constantly dig the hole deeper – even the way we try and help people.
Because your humanity has been undermined and you feel like this needs to be filled by something, most of the ways we try and fill it actually make the problem worse. If you seek help for that, and you go and see a doctor and he gives you a pill, and you walk out of the room with a pill, you’ve just dug the hole deeper. I’m saying there’s no such thing as a single human being. The fundamental human unit contains at least two. If you catch that, you’re on your way to a healthier life.
How do you find comfort in death, particularly one so great as the loss of a child?
We really do live in a death-denying culture. We plan and invest as if we’re going to live forever. We say we accept death, but only when it’s not real. To really know your mortality can set you free; to live each day as if it’s your last. The death of James is the worst wrenching, the worst tearing, the worst pain I know. But it has delivered liberation in one sense. It’s loosened my grip on lots of things that I used to hang onto too tightly. It used to be very important to me whether you thought I was doing a good job or not. Now I really don’t care.
I still do the best that I can do, the best job I can do, but I don’t need the applause. I used to care a lot about what I drove, where I lived, how I looked. None of that means a thing to me now. So there is great liberation in knowing your own mortality. It sounds depressing, but it’s actually the opposite. This is his watch, and it stopped at one minute to midnight all on its own, and I left it there because it’s always accurate. The overwhelming sense after his death was, you only live for 5 minutes, and I’ve only got 1 minute left.
I find the older I get the faster life goes. The last 10 years just went like that – we seem to be celebrating Christmas every three months. The older I get the faster this goes, and the more ludicrous this goes. I’m pretty convinced I’ve got a minute left. It’s just a minute. The gift in James’ death is that I only want my feet to take me where I’d like to be found in my last minute.
Do you think you’re a spiritual being, and most importantly, do you believe in karma?
I don’t know. I think everybody does believe in karma. I think at one level, it’s a load of trash because innocent people get shat upon from a great height all the time. And, babies die and four year olds get run over. There’s no higher principle at work. At another level I get it. I would say nobody really gets away with anything. If I steal $5 off you, I’m 5 up, and you’re 5 down. I’ve constituted myself as a thief, so I’ve emptied myself. If that’s karma I’ll give it a sideways vote. I think we are embodied spirits, and I like the idea that our bodies are sacred sites. I think spiritual is probably the right word for that. If it is, then I’m a spiritual person. I don’t like to think I’m a spiritual person in a way that’s disembodied. I don’t want to be off with the fairies. I want my feet standing in the mud.