Monday, March 18, 2024

The Power of Love

Looking through my writing archives for the month of March, I came across the following article, initially published in my weekly column for the Scunthorpe Telegraph in March 2011: 

The Power of Love

Earlier this month (March 2011), the national newspapers reported the death of L/Cpl Tasker, a military dog-handler working in Afghanistan. What makes this sad loss of a member of our armed forces even more poignant is the fact that his specialist dog, Theo, died of a seizure three hours after the death of his master; such was the bond between the two.

The above case may not be considered unusual by animal lovers, who often form strong emotional bonds with their pets. That the same applies to humans is also well-known; I have often encountered stories where someone with a serious illness has evidently stayed alive against all odds, simply to meet an important personal or family deadline (a wedding anniversary or landmark birthday, for example). The determined power of the human spirit is the only factor deciding on life or death. Never, however, had I met the situation in person until shortly after I qualified as a doctor: ‘She refuses to die whilst her husband is still alive,’ said the staff nurse.

I was in the first week of my first hospital job as a House Surgeon in Kent. Mary (as I will call her) was in her mid sixties and extremely frail. She was quiet and undemanding, and held little in the way of conversation apart from requesting a daily report on her husband. Her diagnosis had been confirmed some four months previously; inoperable cancer of the ovary. Over the ensuing months, Mary became progressively weaker, being unable to take food and surviving on the occasional sip of tea and the fluids being dripped into her veins. Such was the extent of her emaciation that her skin appeared to have been wrapped like Clingfilm around every curve and contour of her bones.

Mary’s husband used to visit her every day at 2.15pm precisely. He was a dapper little chap; always in a tweed jacket and tie, and carrying fresh flowers. He would give her a gentle kiss on the cheek then sit down in an armchair next to the bed. A few words might pass between them, perhaps some small happening from events back at home. However, for most of the time they would remain quiet; content in that easy silence that comes of many long marriages. Often, Mary would sleep. For his part, her husband remained vigilant, quietly stroking her bony hand; reassuring her by his continued presence. Then at 5pm, he would rise, give her another kiss, move the odd wisp of hair from her face, give her hand a final two-handed squeeze, pick up his cap and leave. Mary would follow him with her eyes until he disappeared from view. All of this I would observe from the distance of the ward office.

One day, in the cruel way that fate often works, Mary’s husband suffered a major stroke, which left him paralysed and unable to speak. As a result, he was admitted to another ward within the same hospital. Both being too ill to move, the only contact between them was Mary’s daily enquiry after her husband. Then, at 8am one weekday, the telephone call came through to the ward to inform us that Mary’s husband had died in his sleep during the early hours of that morning. The ward Sister broke the news to Mary, who listened carefully but showed little in the way of emotion.

Just after lunch, my pager summoned me back to the ward and I was asked to see Mary. I knew at once that she had passed away. I stood there, quietly pensive, noting the hand stretched out towards the empty chair beside her. As the nurses averted their red-rimmed eyes, I knew that I was not the only one to be moved by her death. For many months, Mary had survived against all odds, taking strength from the power of her husband’s love and her love for him. Then, within a few hours of being informed of his death, she had simply stopped living.

I still wonder at how the power of love fuelled Mary’s resilience. The story of L/Cpl Tasker and his dog Theo reminded me of this story, and of how love for another being is sometimes stronger than any medicine.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Speaking of Love

 The following article was first published in my column for the Scunthorpe Telegraph (27 Feb 2014):

Love is the Most Powerful Emotion

I have previously referred to the writings of Kahlil Gibran, a late 19th century, Lebanese poet and philosopher. He is arguably most famous for his powerful and mystical work, The Prophet. In that book, he speaks to the reader of many experiences from across the rich spectrum of human emotions, drawing out the central essence of each individual sentiment and passion.

The ability to portray emotion is one of the most fundamental traits central to the concept of being alive, conscious, knowing and having a sense of self-identity. Whilst not alone within the animal kingdom, as human beings we are driven by our feelings; perceive a mental stimulus and our bodies respond accordingly. It is a well-known fact that a positive state of mind can bring health benefits, whilst a negative or pessimistic outlook can be detrimental to health.

Next to its antithesis anger, the sensation of love is arguably the most powerful of emotions, imbued with a depth and richness of nuance that is hard to satisfactorily reflect in the written word. Thousands of artists, writers and poets over the centuries have chased after its elusive form and meaning; only some have come close to succeeding. The problem is not for the lack of a choice of descriptive words in the thesaurus, or hue of colours on the artist’s palette. The real issue is that love in its purest and truest form is an awesome, irresistible and overwhelming force that has the power to dominate a person’s every waking moment. It is not the same as lust, which is harsher and fleeting in nature. Love has a vastness of strength that overcomes all obstacles; bonding the human spirit to that of another, regardless of distance or time. In the words of his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul tells us, ‘love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things; love never ends.’

It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the death of a loved one truly has the power to ‘break one’s heart’. In this column in March 2011, I related the story of an elderly lady who was in hospital and seriously ill. She remained alive for months beyond medical expectation, purely because of the strength of the relationship between her and her husband, who unfailingly visited every day. One day he had a stroke, was admitted to hospital, and died a few days later. The news was gently given to his wife the same morning, and that afternoon she died.

Kahlil Gibran advises the reader thus: ‘When love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep. Think not that you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course’; though he also warns: ‘And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation’. A truth many a bereaved person knows only too well.

[In Memoriam: Winifred Gertrude Jaggs-Fowler SSStJ (1931 – 2014); for whom three months of separation after 72 years of love was beyond her heart’s endurance.]

Thursday, March 14, 2024

A Short Meditation on Death

The following, a meditation on the subject of death, is an article first published in my column for the Scunthorpe Telegraph (28 November, 2013):

There is a Season for Everything

Just as a glorious summer must be followed by a mellowing autumn and the ravages of winter, so to must the vigour and splendour of young life be followed by the imprecations of old age and, subsequently, inevitably and irrevocably, death. For, as Ecclesiastes 3:1-9 simply informs us, for everything there is a season, and just as there is a time to be born, so too is there a time to die.

Yet even within death, there is beauty, hope and comfort. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O grave is your sting?’ The words of 1 Corinthians 15:55 confront and challenge the nemesis we all share, and many fear. Shakespeare grappled with the same sentiment in Sonnet V1; ‘Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart/Leaving thee living in posterity?’ For Shakespeare, children are one of the answers to the ravages of old age, for who can fear death if they are able to see younger versions of themselves living on even whilst death snatches at the breath of the parent? In the face of such posterity, how can death ever be the conqueror? A parent may die, but in the face of death, they live on through the breath, heart, mind and eyes of a son or daughter.

What promise, then, for the dying person, other than being assured of vicariously living through the lives of their offspring? Individual religions see death in slightly different ways. For most Christians, there is the promise of a life after death, in the company of God in Heaven, surrounded by the souls of long departed loved ones, and where pain and sin are no more. 

Muslims believe that this life is but a short trial in preparation for the next realm of existence. Buddhists take the view that death is not the end of existence. For a Buddhist, death is just the closing of a chapter, following which a new chapter immediately begins. One automatically follows the other; just as death is followed by re-birth. Hindhus believe that death is not a great misfortune and not final. It is just a natural process in a soul’s journey, by which it ‘reassembles its resources, adjusts its course and returns again to the earth to continue its journey’.

In his marvellous book, The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran says that ‘life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one’. His whole chapter on the subject of death is worth reading, and has brought many people great comfort at times of deep distress and in the face of perceived adversity. Therein is a mine of treasures, but two more lines on the subject are particularly emotive: ‘For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? … And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance’. May it be just so.

[In Memoriam: Robert John Lawrence Fowler (1927 – 2013). May your breath now be free and your dance be joyful.]

Sunday, March 03, 2024

Jung's Synchronicity

I am currently reading a book on Carl Jung, called Decoding Jung's Metaphysics, by Bernardo Kastrup. In a chapter on 'synchronicity' (what most people might call coincidence), Jung is quoted as saying:

It is perfectly possible, psychologically, for the unconscious to take complete possession of man and to determine his fate down to the smallest detail.

That stopped me in my reading tracks. I was immediately reminded of a thought which occured to me whilst in my late teens. It was whilst pondering my future career possibilities, and went something along the lines that I should be best placed psychologically as a 'doctor without any patients, a priest without a parish, or a don without any students'.

Now, in my 7th decade, I find myself as a retired GP, a priest without any parochial affiliation, and a Visiting Fellow at a university (which is at least included within the Wikipedia definition of what constitutes a 'don').  

I wonder what Jung would have to say about that?

So, some years ago, when I wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek comment in one of my newspaper columns regarding the idea that I am going to live to 120 years, perhaps that was more than just an arbitrary thought? Perhaps it was another case of synchronicity? Only time will tell...

Reading further, I found Jung saying:

The world surrounding you right now presents itself physically to you as an integrated whole. Moreover, this whole has a message: it is interpretable as the dream of a greater and more comprehensive consciousness. Every bit of the physical world, across space and time, may express global archetypal meaning; it may be telling a story. From this perspective, it is entirely legitimate for you to ask yourself: 'What does the world around me mean? What does its imagery symbolically represent? What is it saying?'

As with Jung, I am inclined to believe that there is a force at work in this world that is determinate. 'Divine Providence' is perhaps another way of looking at it - that being God's timely preparation for future eventualities. Of course, as a priest, you would expect my belief in God, and I do believe that God speaks to us in a wealth of ways. However, what is more important in this context is that we should truely 'watch the signs', just as the prophets of centuries past did. For some reason, probably because of the increase in scientific understanding, humankind has become less inclined to consider matters of prophecy as being relevant. I think we do that at our peril. Or, to put it another way, if we do 'watch the signs', we might take courage and reassurance from having an insight as to how our story is going to unfold. 

Perhaps the Oracle of Delphi (and such like) was less of the 'myth' that we now assume her to be. 

The Power of Love

Looking through my writing archives for the month of March, I came across the following article, initially published in my weekly column for...