I came into the world in this lifetime in 1952, in Britain. (That’s little me, in the black-and-white photo.) When I was born, Elizabeth Regina was the queen. And so she remained, throughout my life.
Let me say straight away that I was not a monarchist. I agreed with the Sex Pistols’ 1977 punk rant, God Save The Queen: “She ain’t no human being.” That seemed accurate to me.
When Prince Charles married Diana in 1981 I didn’t get up early in the morning like so many Canadians I knew to watch. In fact I jeered at those who did for their foolishness.
Later on, after I warmed to Diana (and who wouldn’t) the Queen’s five-day silence after her untimely and tragic death proved to me that the Sex Pistols were right. The Queen wasn’t really human like the rest of us. She was aloof. Distant.
Now I can’t help thinking that in fact I was the one who held myself apart, aloof and distant, and so I saw that reflected in my worldview.
I think this way now because in the last ten days I’ve done a lot of learning, a lot of realising and a lot of growing. It’s what SGI Buddhism calls human revolution. A change of heart. And I feel very grateful for it.
It’s easy to get carried away with the pomp and circumstance of the British nobility and either love it or hate it. You know – the Duke of this and the Countess of that. But what does nobility really mean? Queen Elizabeth’s example showed the world that the real significance of the word “nobility” lies in a person’s behaviour, not their lucky break of birth circumstances.
When SGI President Daisaku Ikeda visited Britain in 1989 he encouraged SGI-UK members to have the spirit of noblesse oblige. This means that nobility ought to extend beyond mere entitlement (gimme, gimme, gimme). Noblesse oblige says that privileged people have a responsibility to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged. Or if you like, fortunate people have a responsibility to act with generosity and nobility toward those less fortunate.
That seems to nicely sum up the queen’s unswerving devotion to duty. I learned more about that devotion yesterday, in a New York Times article.
In 1966, tragedy hit a small Welsh mining village. A deadly avalanche of slurry, a semi-liquid mixture of coal waste from the coalmine that had been dumped for years on the hilltop above the village mixed with water from heavier than usual rainfall, slammed down the hillside onto the village. A tsunami, almost 30 feet high in places, it crushed houses and the school. One hundred and sixteen schoolchildren, aged 6 to 11, died that morning. Also 28 adults.
Elizabeth’s parents, although they were good people, had believed that the monarchy had to maintain a separation between itself and “ordinary” people, because a certain mystique had to be perpetuated. But eight days after the traumatic disaster Elizabeth journeyed to Aberfan. Eyewitnesses say she wept when given a bouquet of flowers by survivors.
And the relationship, the bond she formed with the victims didn’t end there. That humble village of 3,500 people received in all four visits from Her Majesty. In 1973 she opened a community centre. In 1997 she planted a tree on the site of the disaster. And in 2012 she opened a new school. She even hosted wives, mothers and sisters of the victims at Buckingham Palace.
Where successive governments ignored the villagers’ pleas for compensation for this industrial accident, the Queen made them feel that they mattered. Because to her, they did.
And this is what really got me. One day before Elizabeth died – and I’m certain she knew she was dying – teachers at the new Aberfan school received a letter for the students from her, which courtiers had sent, at her request.
The day before dying she was concerned about these young people. What an astounding woman.
This morning, although I’m not working this week, I awoke to a 5 a.m. alarm so I could write my Morning Pages and then participate in the Queen’s funeral by watching a livestream on YouTube at 6 a.m. (Thank you, Sky News.) I watched for hours, and cried, not for the first time in the past week.
A particular remark by one commentator made a strong impression on me. He noted that when Elizabeth’s father unexpectedly became Britain’s king, it changed Elizabeth’s whole life. I thought: “It changed the life of the whole world, too.”
Elizabeth’s father was the younger brother of the heir apparent, Edward. He never expected for a moment that he would become Britain’s king. But when Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 because he couldn’t bear to be without the woman he loved so dearly, Elizabeth’s father had to step up, and take his place as George VI.
Here’s where that hit me. If Edward hadn’t followed his heart, and abdicated because draconian rules said a monarch may not marry a divorced commoner, Elizabeth’s father wouldn’t have become the king. And Elizabeth would not have assumed the throne after her father died suddenly, in 1952.
The world would not have known her, or benefitted from her steadying, wise diplomacy. She would never have become the most famous person in the world. And an estimated four billion people would not have watched Britain at its best today, giving Queen Elizabeth the beautiful send-off she so richly deserved after 70 years of quiet, tactful leadership by example.
So this tells me how important it is to follow your heart. Edward followed his, back in 1936, and the whole world benefitted as a result.
I used to think I wasn’t a morning person. I used to think the monarchy was an expensive anachronism. Now I find that the long life of one small woman with a big and tireless heart, a noble heart, has helped me transform over these past, intense ten days.
Rest well, my dear Queen, with your husband, your sister and your parents. You certainly deserve a deep and peaceful rest. Thank you for everything. You are missed. But you have bequeathed your son to us, in whom you have deeply imprinted your values and your attitude of servant leadership. He will be a good king.
God rest the Queen.
Photo of tributes to Queen Elizabeth placed along London’s Mall by Doyle of London – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=122980303