I could only have been about ten years old when I experienced one of the most exhausting, terrifying and fever-blighted nights of my life. Earlier that evening my dad had presented me with the computer game Oh No! More Lemmings. The object of the game is to save as many cutesy little animated lemmings from death as possible by manipulating them, and carving up the landscape of each level, in a way that leads them safely to the exit. Otherwise they would march in a line until they met their death from various perils such as falling from great height, being broiled by naked flames or plopping into lakes of liquid which bubbled and fizzed greedily for the little lemming bodies.
Sometimes one or two lemmings had to be sacrificed. I always felt most sorry for the blocker lemmings, whose job was to stand with their arms outstretched and prevent the others from walking unknowingly into danger. The others would reach the exit and survival; the blockers would remain, arms outstretched in their noble pose, until they blew up. Noble martyrs. A race which could give birth to blockers was a race worth being saved.
In the middle of the night, I awoke with a fever, mad with thirst and unable to move or cry out as before me, in an otherwise dark room, hung a Lemmings level with no exit. My mind manipulated the lemmings as it would if I was really playing the game. Some built staircases and led the others upwards; some climbed the obstacles they encountered; some blocked the path of the others; but there was no escape, no ultimate goal, and they didn’t know what I did. Eventually, as if their nature was beginning to alter and rebel in the face of the hopelessness, one or two blew up, then a few more. And when a sufficient number had blown up there was no more floor at the bottom of the level, so that those who hadn’t exploded were doomed, however long it took them to walk their particular route, to fall into the abyss.
In my fevered state I honestly felt pangs of grief as if I had been responsible for the death of a tribe. An entire race, I thought, and all the individuals of which it was made up, had met it’s end as I watched, meddled with the best of intentions but could do nothing to save them. There were no noble martyrs in that cruel nightmare. Only victims.
Someone, somewhere, with a sharp mind, a keen eye and a precise way with words must, at some time, have suggested that you can tell a lot about a people from their martyrs.
Christian martyrs are famous for displaying the heroic virtue needed to endure great suffering for greater good. Whether they share the Christian martyrs’ motivating beliefs or not, few people are totally unmoved by their stories.
Take a moment to think of the selflessness of Father Maximillian Kolbe, who voluntarily took the place of a stranger to be murdered in Auschwitz, and provided hope, in otherwise hopeless circumstances, to his fellow scapegoats through their final hours, and tell me that you don’t admire his heroism and feel a tinge of shame because you know you would never be able to do the same. Think of those at the great martyrdom of Nagasaki in 1622, who kissed the stakes they were to be burned on because they loved the opportunity to witness to the true faith more than they feared the famous spears of the Samurai, and tell me that you don’t want something of what they had in them; that their kind of strength and selflessness isn’t something fertile, something from which love and hope springs as surely as the sun still rises in the east.
I won’t believe you in either case.
Now take a moment to think about what future generations will infer about us when they look back and observe the praise and reverence we lavish upon people like Tony Nicklinson (I believe he got his wish and was murdered in the end), and wannabe Tony Nicklinsons such as Terry Pratchett and Michael Winner, because they want to make doctors and carers into murderers. The entire movement which feasts on the confused and prideful rationalizations of such people advances under the banner of compassion. But it is false compassion; behind the banner marches a snarling and despotic disgust, the disciples of which read a private script they know is too raw for their simpering public following:
“Take away the old, they remind me of the impermanence of youth! Take away the sick and feeble, I have no love spare for them because I owe it all to myself and you will not make me live for another! Take away the value of life itself, it is a counterfeit compared to the value of my will, my self-determination, my choice! The affection of others is nothing to me; I am a mighty creature, the falcon and the falconer, do not rob such a masterpiece of it’s dignity! I am the alpha and the omega because I want it to be so! If I want death you must give it to me because you mean nothing!”
What can spring from the deaths of such curiously modern martyrs except more death, disgust and selfishness? Once these attitudes become hardened what will there be left worth living for? What privation, what illness, imperfection or difference will not demand, in the eyes of rapturous self love, to be eradicated?
We need help, like the lemmings did. Who is there to save us? Who can lead us to the exit from the mad landscape we find ourselves in?