Understanding what it is to be human

Second Reading
Understanding what it is to be human

Fr Kevin Hegarty

Last weekend was bordered by two events that seem to have nothing in common – the World Day of Prayer for the Sick on Friday and Valentine’s Day, a celebration of love, on  Monday.
Yet I sense there is a connection. We can become casual about our loves. The illness of a family member or friend can stir emotions we have taken for granted.
I realise that this is a generalisation but it seems to me that we inhabit two worlds at different times.
The first is the ordinary, everyday one. We get up, go to work, care for our families and play activities.
The other is a smaller, much darker place – the world of illness, a concentrated space evident in our hospital wards and corridors. Here one finds vulnerability, fear and often tears. Those lying in bed wonder what the future holds or will they have a future.
Relatives and friends gather along corridors or in hospital coffee shops, talking quietly. They often break into animated conversation with strangers, united by the common bond of illness. Who is in the news or in or out of government or achieving sporting acclaim or notoriety becomes irrelevant.
The novelist, Virginia Woolf in an essay, “On Being Ill”, described the perspective of sickness: “It is like stepping into a different world, where there are different rules, ways of behaving and ways of seeing.”
I reckon that most of us experience a shiver of fear when we go to a doctor for a check-up and await the verdict.
David Craig, in his poem, “Operation”, evokes how it was for him:

“The surgeon is using homely words: “We will take away everything except the nerves and muscles.” (That’s sound, just what I would have done myself. “The drains are rather a gamble, but presently
The lymph will find a new route through your body”
His voice is cool, managerial green eyes steady
About the plump cheeks, fledged with steely stubble.”

The poet, Jo Shapcott, recently had treatment for breast cancer. She deals with the experience in her new collection, “Of Mutability”, which has just won the Costa book prize. She dramatises her sudden journey from her everyday world to the world of illness.
She had been working hard, writing, travelling, lecturing and fulfilling commissions.  Diagnosed with breast cancer, she quickly found herself in an unknown landscape, that of surgery and chemotherapy, hair loss, frequent medical appointments and compulsory rest.
Her experience of illness has changed her perspective on the world. She wrote recently “When Dennis Potter was dying, he filmed that famous interview, in which he talked about looking out of the window and observing the blossominess of the blossoms with an increased urgency and joy. And I think that does happen to cancer survivors – apparently it’s really common to feel euphoria if you get through the treatment, because it’s a marathon. A lot gets  stripped away, including bad things, and your relationship to your body and the world changes. Everything is more insecure. But somehow that’s exhilarating. When you sit down at the desk again, it’s a new start. Who am I as a poet. How do I write, now all these changes have occurred”.
Her experience echoes that of Patrick Kavanagh. Diagnosed with cancer in the mid 1950s, he “fell in love with the functional ward of a chest hospital” and discerned new layers of meaning in ordinary things, things considered common or even banal:

“This is what love does to things: the Rialto Bridge.
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry
The seat at the back of a shed that was a sun trap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love’s mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.”

Nobody wants to be ill or hopefully wishes illness on anybody else. Yet the reflections of Shapcott and Kavanagh tell us that painful experiences, if we are open to what they can teach us, deepen our understanding of what it is to be human.