So often in life, things don’t turn out the way that we expect. Looking back over the past year, the newspapers record many whose lives were overturned – sometimes within seconds. From earthquakes to violent eruptions, floods to uprisings. For millions of us life can change in an instant, despite our best hopes and plans. As Christians, how are we to respond? How do we help those who are struggling – for example, with long-term sickness?
It’s tempting to look down our noses at primitive ‘bible times’ where lepers became social pariahs, a continual source of dread and fear. The sick were banished from their homes and communities. Today, we imagine, developments in medicine mean that illness holds no such stigma.
Or does it?
The actor Adrian Edmondson, (married to Jennifer Saunders), makes some very interesting observations about how we label and handle illness. Speaking of his wife’s treatment for breast cancer, he argues it is misleading to describe it in terms of a ‘battle’. He goes on,
‘It’s not a great three-part TV drama full of moments, it’s a long grind, like a slow car crash that will last five years and then, hopefully, we’ll get out’.
Or here’s what Sarah Gabriel experienced, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer;
‘Cancer seems to be different from other diseases. It represents not just a failure of your own body, but a failure of the body politic, and unleashes powerful combative urges in the people around you. The disease and everything associated with it – fear, sadness, uncertainty – must be ruthlessly excised… You’ve got to be positive, otherwise you won’t get well’. And there’s the rub, the secret message. If you don’t get well it’s all your own fault. You haven’t shown the proper attitude, fought hard enough, been positive enough’
It’s very hard to know how to help or encourage those who are sick in mind or body. Such claims seem to provide hope in suggesting that we are in control and can heal ourselves through the power of positive thinking or goji berries. But in dispensing a false hope and self-reliance we can do more damage than good. Like Job’s comforters, we may discourage those we are seeking to cheer. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all work out’ is scant comfort for those for whom recovery is by no means assured. Or we can go to the opposite extreme – avoiding the issue (and even the person) altogether, for fear of making the situation worse.
The author Lionel Shriver, writes movingly of her regrets at how she reacted to her best friend’s cancer,
‘On the heels of her diagnosis, I was doting. I’m not tooting my own horn. I suspect being a paragon at the very start of a loved one’s illness is pretty much the form. We’re on the phone daily. We stop by regularly, and bring freshly baked scones. We follow every medical twist and turn. And we’re inclined to rash promises. With a flinch, I recall declaring before Terri’s surgery that I’d be willing to move into their house in New Jersey for weeks at a time! I’d be at her beck and call, running errands, preparing meals and filling prescriptions….
Little by little, I’d notice that it had been a fortnight since I’d rung New Jersey. I’d kick myself. But some book review would be due that afternoon, so I’d vow to ring tomorrow. Time and again some immediate task would seem more urgent, and I’d tell myself that I should ring Terri when I’m settled and concentrated. ..I stuck a Post-it note on the edge of my desk: “RING TERRI!” Over the months, the note faded, much like my resolve. On the too-rare occasions I acted on the reminder, I had to put a mental gun to my head. But why? This was one of my closest friends, and she was dying. While she was still on this Earth, why was I not battling to maximise every moment? Surely the problem should have been my ringing too often, whizzing back to the States too many times, making a pest of myself…
I fear this suddenly-remembering-somewhere-you-gotta-be is a common failing of our time. In fearing and avoiding death, we fear and avoid the dying…I’ll risk sounding preachy, since I’ve paid for my sermon with a regret that never leaves me. .. Disease is frightening. It’s unpleasant. It reminds us of everything we try not to think about on our own accounts. A biological instinct to steer clear of contagion can kick in even with diseases like cancer that we understand rationally aren’t communicable. So the urge to avoid sick people runs very deep.’
So where does this leave us? How are we to respond to the urge to avoid the contagion of other people’s sickness – particularly when the prognosis, at least in earthly terms, is very bleak?
We’re not so bad with short-term illness. After all you can always nuke a cold with industrial strength Lemsip. If that doesn’t work, then bring on the antibiotics. But if sickness persists in spite of our best treatments we start to feel more than a little uneasy. It’s the randomness, the lack of control. There must be a ten step plan to wellness. Because if they can’t heal themselves then the world starts to look like a very frightening place. A place where even the combined expertise of modern medicine and our best efforts count for nothing. A place where death always has the last word.
With this in mind, the urgency of our exhortations to ‘think positive’ are less surprising. But if our care amounts to the quick-fix then the real question is this: Who are we trying to comfort, them or us?