This is an online extract from this week’s New Statesman magazine, published on Thursday 3 October. To read the rest of the articles in our “What makes us human?” series, in collaboration with Radio 2, click here.
What is it to be human? Since the death of my wife, Sian Busby, about a year ago, I have been thinking a good deal about this. How could I not, having been wrenched savagely from the person with whom I have been in love for the best part of my life? It is a version of “what’s it all about?”
It is immediately clear to me that a small part of the answer is taking pride in the achievements of those to whom we feel closest, since I feel obliged at this juncture to tell you that Sian was a brilliant writer, wonderful mum, devoted sister and all-weather friend. And she was my soul mate.
Her last years demonstrated another quality of many humans: bravery. She was much braver than me, and her courage during five years of lung cancer was exceptional. Sian hoped for the best and was never pessimistic; she only ever revealed to me her fears and anxieties, protecting our children and friends, so that life could be as normal as possible; she rarely complained when wracked with acute pain. If she occasionally remarked that, as a non-smoker, rare drinker and healthy-living person, it seemed a bit unfair that she was afflicted with a disease more normally associated with a life of indulgence, would that be so terrible and shameful?
Sian was not a saint. She could be intolerant and damning of those she considered vain and stupid. But she was the best human I will ever know.
What I really want to explore however is the link between the social – our connections with people – and the essence of being human. Sian built her life around mutually supportive, intimate friendships, which were often artistic collaborations. These connections for her were largely in the private sphere. In this sense, we were a “Jack Spratt” couple, because she did not enjoy public life, whereas I revel in trying to reach out to a wider audience – both through my work as a journalist, and through founding an education charity, Speakers for Schools.
One motive for setting up Speakers for Schools was a conviction that everything works better, the economy, communities, society in the broadest sense, when we are connected to as many varied people as possible. And the connection has to go both ways. It is a two-way pipe.
Life is dull and poor for those with limited knowledge and a narrow outlook. There are fewer opportunities to create wealth – material and spiritual – in the absence of challenging conversations. It is other people who help us both to see more of the world as it is, and to understand more about ourselves.
That is why I often think the eminences who go into state schools under our scheme derive as much benefit as the students whose ambitions they are trying to spark, because they are asked challenging questions that their entourages would never put to them, and they are taken out of their cossetting monied ghettos.
But the kernel of my reflections on humanness are about what it means to lose the physical presence of the person to whom you feel closest. What happens to the connection to the one you love when he or she dies? As you will have gathered, in an important way I feel lucky – because, for all my recent trauma and heartache, with Sian I had the kind of bond that for years I thought impossible. And just because Sian isn’t sitting next to me, that does not mean the bond or connection has gone.
Of course, there are really important things that I miss, beyond what words can convey. She was beautiful in every way, and just entering a room to be with her made me feel happy. The loss of physical intimacy is brutal, horrible.
But we also had an unusually deep intellectual and spiritual connection. That intangible connection cannot be destroyed; it is manifest in a continuing internal dialogue with Sian in my heart and head, and through the warmth that memories generate.
We were always confident of the connection between us, not possessive of each other, or jealous of each other. This does not mean we were similar people or agreed about everything. She was (is) a Celtic artist; I am a Jewish hack. She kept my ugly vanity in check, and I helped her become more ambitious in her art and writing.
We were more as a couple than we could be apart. And more than anything I do not want to be made smaller by her departure; I will not allow myself to lose her wisdom and guidance.
Even when Sian was acutely ill, all I could see was the two of us growing old together. We knew intellectually that there was a high statistical probability that the lung cancer would kill her, but that was not a prognosis we accepted in an emotional sense. Neither of us was ready for or reconciled to her death.
Throughout our time together, we would often talk of being together forever – which may have been the unremarkable endearments of lovers, but there is, for me, an important truth in them. So here is another thing about being human. Many of us put a search for the eternal at the centre of our lives. As a Jew by birth and an agnostic through choice, I do not look for immutable truth in conventional religion. But I found something that transcends physical existence in my connection with Sian, my love for her.
That is what defines me, as a human.
Robert Peston is the BBC’s business editor