Temporary Endings and The Final Beginning
So we come to a very national sort of ending. It’s one which we all knew would come, and yet somehow felt as though it never really would. 3 or 4 generations of us have known nothing other than periodic jubilee celebrations, or singing “God save the Queen” or her face adorning coins and stamps and newspaper articles.
In the hours since the death of Queen Elizabeth tributes have rolled in. Countless words have been spoken, but one thing has stood out. It was there in Boris Johnson’s words in parliament, that “we have perhaps been lulled into thinking that she might be in some way eternal.” It was there as another MP quoted W.H. Auden’s famous words, “We thought that love would last for ever: We were wrong.”
Funnily enough, it was the French president, Emmanuel Macron who managed to capture it best:
“She was one with her nation: she embodied a people, a territory, and a shared will. And stability: above the fluctuations and upheaval of politics, she represented a sense of eternity.”
That “sense of eternity” is the recurring theme in so many tributes. Objectively speaking, the death of someone at 96—especially someone as beloved and remarkable as Queen Elizabeth II—is deeply sad, tragic even. But it won’t usually be described as a “shock.” Yet that seems to be the overwhelming description at the moment. The country is experiencing a “deep sense of shock.”
Queen Elizabeth was the ever-present ruler. She herself seemed almost unchanging despite the fantastic changes that took place in the UK and in the world throughout her reign.
But, as all things must, that reign has come to an end. And, as so many floral tributes have put it, we can’t really believe she’s gone.
Endings pervade everything we do. Every day of our lives comes to an end. The sun sets, the sun rises. We roll from season to season, spring giving way to summer to autumn to winter. Year after year starts and finishes. We watch children around us grow out of their baby-vests, leave toddlerhood behind, take their first faltering steps into primary school, stride into secondary school with as much confidence as they can muster, and then in a blink they’re adults. And the cycle starts again.
Yes, endings are everywhere. You could argue that they’re pretty much the most normal thing about our lives.
Yet, we have a strange relationship with them. Sometimes they relieve us. A difficult time recedes into the distance. Others excite us for what inevitably follows. Sometimes they daunt us for exactly the same reasons. And then there are those endings, like this one, which leave us feeling bereft.
The one thing which endings don’t do is pass unnoticed. But isn’t that odd? If endings are one of the most normal things about our lives, if they’re inescapable, then why should we be so surprised by them? To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, our constant surprise at the finality of endings—whether in relief or sadness—is rather like a fish being constantly surprised at the wetness of water.
The only conclusion to draw is that endings jar with us because we long for the world to be different. We yearn for reality not to be as it is. And we find hooks onto which those yearnings can be placed. Deep down we know that the story we have been subconsciously telling ourselves is an illusion. We knew that Elizabeth II’s reign would not simply continue—we know that the present is not, in fact, eternal. But we insulate ourselves from that truth.
Despite our love of the new and novel, we humans crave stability and permanence, and for 70 years Elizabeth provided that and then some.
This ending has taken us by surprise because it has shown us that she wasn't the place to find that permanence.
There is just one place to really find it; a higher throne.
Perhaps this particular ending reveals that our yearning for what can't be found in this world—even in the lengthy reign of an utterly remarkable woman—is proof enough that we were made for another.