[Please read Part 1 first.]
2. Living in a Desert
A hospital is parallel universe. Even as a member of staff it is possible to be admitted by the front doors and have an extended stay, being able to wash, have a haircut, buy food, enjoy café society, eat, and even sleep there – as I did at times when I was on-call. In this world serious illness and death is normal, daily fare. We put our worst nightmares into this world, quietly closing the door before tiptoeing away. Working as a chaplain in this world has left me with legacies.
The first is a constant awareness of the reality and imminence of death. You may say this is morbid or unreal, but I will caution that I have seen men of my own age, and much younger, admitted to A&E having died unexpectedly: I have had to tell their families. I will tell you that I have sat with men and women of my own age, and much younger, having led apparently blameless and healthy lives, dying of incurable disease.
I was terrified every day.
The second legacy is the sense that a self is a fragile animal. Your identity is composed of 10,000 props: your clothing, possessions, relationships, the brands you use, your freedom to choose, your home, car, work, colleagues, the books you read, the music you listen to, your favourite TV shows and radio programmes, your opinions and beliefs, etc., etc., etc. When you are given hospitality as an in-patient all of this goes. The hospital timetable structures when you wake, toilet, eat, wash, dress, sit, walk, sleep, and see a doctor or nurse. You may have hospital pyjamas. You have few, if any, possessions. You are unable to make productive use of your time: patients report that they are not able to concentrate. You see few friends; if you are elderly and your friends are also elderly then you may have no visitors at all.
However, do not think this is wrong, that ‘the system’ must be changed. This state of affairs is much closer to our usual universe than you think. The signs of your apparent solidity are illusory, temporary, borrowed. Your sense of self is conveyed by the familiar things that themselves do not abide. We don’t notice this because for the most part change is slow: a new set of clothes, a smart-phone upgrade, a change of shower gel, the loss of a tooth, hair a little thinner this year, another funeral to attend. But what happens when everything goes all at once?
Who are you when stripped of what you own, what you do and who you know? Who are you, really?
You might not guess it, but I am profoundly grateful to have had this experience. I feel initiated into life’s mysteries, to some extent. Any philosophy, any modus vivendi, that sidesteps these experiences is useless to me now.
To be aware of this body – to be this body, aware – is to be aware that nothing lasts. It is to know that well-being and facility is for now, not for ever. You know it in your heart and in the pit of your stomach. Learn to dwell here. Trust this.
Do not plan and wait for a future when life can begin: learn that life is now.
[Read Part III]