Recently I went to see ‘Stan and Ollie’, the new film about Laurel and Hardy. There’s a scene towards the end of the film, when Hardy says to Laurel ‘I’ll miss this when we’re gone’. He speaks the words, indicating his eagerness to finish the show with the dance routine that, due to his heart disease, he knows, from a solely medical point of view, he is unwise to perform.
Oliver Hardy knows it’s not just his career with Stan Laurel that is drawing to a close – it’s also his life. What he chooses to do though is not simply based upon the notion that one should live only for the moment. Mindful of the future, the sadness he will feel, and recalling the past, the joy he has known, he makes a decision in the present. Hoping not to be left with the sadness of regret – he dances.
For those who’ve not seen the film, I’ll not spoil it by saying what happens but, suffice to say, it’s a bittersweet moment. The sadness is extenuated by the joy, the joy extenuated by the sadness. It made me smile – as I cried.
It reminded me of four things:
1. Good advice is sometimes best ignored
As a doctor I need to remember that there are some things more important than one’s health – the value of a life is not measured by its length. In our efforts to extend life we must not deprive our patients the opportunity to live. Sometimes we need to say to our patients that they’d be well advised to pay no heed to what we doctors tell them. And we sometimes have to be wise enough to ignore conventional medical wisdom and deliberately fail to pass it on.
As a Christian, likewise I need to remember that there are some things more important than one’s health – the value of a life is indeed not measured by its length. As a Christian I need to be wise enough to question the wisdom of the world, regardless of how loudly that voice insists that it is right. Instead I need to listen to ‘a better word’. [Hebrews 12:24] so that my faith ‘might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God’. [1 Corinthians 2:5]. So regardless of how wise the worlds advice might seem, I must listen more closely still to Jesus whose words I know, even if I die, are the words of eternal life.
2. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
Neither doctors, nor their patients need more guidelines focusing in on every symptom that is experienced with the demand that each is managed perfectly. Though following guidelines may make us all feel safer, they risk leaving us trapped in a very small corner of the here and now. Too much attention to problems gives them undue prominence in our consciousness and risks diminishing our lives more than is necessary. This is even more true when the problems are only risk factors – that is, merely potential problems. Similarly, neither doctors nor their patients need any more spurious health scares. Though undertaking a precipitous and wholesale change to their medical practice may give them a momentary sense of satisfaction that current advice is being followed, we all will be left too busy to alter the things that genuinely matter today and thus delay any movement towards a truly better tomorrow. We need to keep in mind the bigger picture and focus on what’s most important. We need to keep the future in mind rather than be obsessed with the present. Colluding with patients that with the right combination of pills and careful attention to lifestyle death will be avoided is dishonest and, as Oliver Hardy perhaps understood, detrimental to all our chances of enjoying the life we have now.
As a Christian I also hold fast to what Jesus said – that eternal life is to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. [John 17:3]. That truly is the main thing. Paradoxically, to really live is not to avoid death. The book of Revelation reminds us that living as a Christian may lead to suffering and even death. But if we live for Christ we will have truly lived – we will have known life in all its fullness, even if we lose all that the world offers. ‘For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?’ [Mark 8:36]. And so we should dance, whatever the cost.
3. Contradictory emotions can be experienced simultaneously
We can not deny the existence of sadness – on the contrary it’s inevitability is universal. Furthermore, we cannot know what happiness really is without knowing the pain of sorrow – and sorrow requires the memory of the temporary nature of happiness. If, then, we are to be happy, it must be alongside our sadness. We dare not wait for the absence of sorrow before allowing ourselves to be happy. It is not that we can not be happy because we know sadness, nor that we can not be sad because there are things to be happy about. Paradoxically, we can be happy and sad at the same time. We can smile – even as we cry.
Similarly we can have a healthy appreciation of life despite serious ill health. We can live well, maybe even dance, despite our approaching death. Life is not black or white, it’s a kaleidoscope of grey. We would do well to see the light in the darkness.
Christians, neither, can deny the existence of sadness – it is a reality for Christians as much as anyone, perhaps more so. Jesus himself was described as ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’ I don’t doubt He cried out in agony as the nails were driven into his hands and feet. His crucifixion was no less painful for knowing he’d rise from the dead three days later. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. His tears were no less anguished for knowing that he would shortly bring Lazarus back from the dead. At these times Jesus shows his humanity – his being 100% man even as he is 100% God. And being human can, in this vale of tears, be incredibly hard. Our sadness today is no less real for it being a sadness that is accompanied by the joy of the knowledge of our salvation. ‘In this [we] rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, [we] have been grieved by various trials [1 Peter 1:6]
Joy then is not the absence of sadness just as sadness is not the absence of joy. As I say, though a paradox, we can be happy and sad at the same time and as with Paul, who described himself as ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing’ [2 Corinthians 6:10], we can indeed know what it is to shed tears as we smile.
4. We need hope.
As a doctor I know that, unlike, Oliver Hardy, too many people, won’t miss this life when they’re gone. Merely keeping people alive and healthy shouldn’t be my sole concern. Nobody for whom the highlight of their day is a bottle of scotch, a packet of fags and a happy meal will adopt healthy lifestyles no matter how much we bully them to do so. Better would be to give them the hope of better lives – lives that will be missed – lives which might just motivate the healthy living that will enable such lives to be more fully enjoyed.
Rather than offering answers that won’t work, and adding to the futility all too many experience, medicine must stop trying to be the solution to the problems for which it is not the answer. Being encouraged to constantly look inward at ourselves is the opposite to what is needed if we are to enjoy the fulfilled lives we hope to live. More than a fourth antihypertensive or a third line statin, to be happy we need to be valued as members of local communities, enjoy meaningful connections with others, and know what it is to love and be loved. That is all of society’s responsibility.
At work, to keeps us going in hard times, we need the hope that our practices will continue to be communities which provide such opportunities. They need to remain small enough to allow relationships between both staff and patients to develop in ways that just aren’t possible in large anonymous organisations. Staying reasonably small enables us to notice and appreciate others even as we are noticed and appreciated ourselves. Lose this and we will find we have gotten’ ourselves into another nice mess. And so, as long as I am privileged to be able to continue to practice in the way I do now, in a supportive partnership looking after personal lists, I’m not looking to leave or reduce my commitment any time soon.
Because, I guess, ‘I’ll miss this when we’re gone’
But as a Christian, I know that merely having such high ideals will not be enough. Merely striving for better will never solve the problems we face today because we’re simply not up to the task. We need a better hope than one that rests on us. Again I must turn to Christ for a hope that genuinely sustains in hard times. For Jesus in the garden it was the hope of ‘the joy that was set before him’ that sustained him as he ‘endured the cross, despising the shame’. [Hebrews 12:2]. God has made promises – promises he cannot fail to keep. We often find that what we experience now and what we hope for in the future stand in contradiction to each other. Our hope is directed at what is not yet visible, and it is our faith in God’s promises that assures us that what he promises we will surely one day experience. God’s promises do not always throw light on the reality that exists today, mystery often remains, but they do illuminate the reality that will one day be.
So lets be reminded again of some of those promises. Though the grief remains, there is a day coming when the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise. (1 Thessalonians 4:16). There is a day coming when what is sown perishable, will be raised imperishable; what is sown in dishonour, will be raised in glory and what is sown in weakness will be raised in power (1 Corinthians 15:42-43). There is a day coming when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4).
God is sovereign and reigns supreme. The battle has been won, Satan is defeated. That, despite the suffering and sadness we experience today, remains the message, the good news, that we find in, the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
In the film, Oliver Hardy said ‘I’ll miss this when we’re gone’. But will I? The hope for the Christian is that there is a new heaven and a new earth coming, which is better by far. Ultimately, we’ll not miss what we have now, for the best is yet to come.
Now if only I could dance!
To read “T.S. Eliot, Jesus and the Paradox of the Christian Life”, click here