Covid -19. Does it suggest we really did have the experience but miss the meaning?

In 1957 Harold MacMillan told the British people that they’d never had it so good.

How though, things have changed. In these days of a coronavirus pandemic, our way of life is being threatened in a way not seen since WWII and the NHS, which we have come to expect will always be there for us when we need it, is being stretched to the point where medical care may not be as wholly available for some as we would like.

What are we to think? What if this were to become the new norm? What if the past 75 years were an anomaly?

Perhaps now would be a good time to ask ourselves if T.S. Eliot was right. Did we have the experience but miss the meaning?

The following is a reissue of a blog first written nearly two years ago under the title, ‘T.S. Eliot, Jesus and the Paradox of the Christian Life’.

WE HAD THE EXPERIENCE BUT MISSED THE MEANING

Recently I read ‘Histories’ by Sam Gugliani – It’s a very good read relating the stories of various individuals, clinical and non clinical, who work in a hospital, and gives their differing perspectives of what takes place there. To give you a flavour, here are a few quotes that stood out for me and got me thinking.

“Hospital words spun like stones across the still waters of people’s lives.

“We’re all victims, aren’t we, of medicine’s success.”, and

“Their voices change key when they speak to him, lengthening to a sing-song, as if his dying might be rendered in nursery rhymes.”

And then there was, “We had the experience but missed the meaning”. Those more literate than I will know without resorting to an internet search that it is a line from the third of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ entitled ‘The Dry Salvages”. It has been on my mind since discovering this remarkable, if perhaps bleak, poem.

Drawing on a 2010 blog by Ben Myers which helped me understand the poem, Eliot seems to be saying that ‘as one becomes older’ our pasts reveal, if we will see it, a pattern in which moments of ‘sudden illumination’, those times when we are happy, are the temporary exception to the norm. They are like a ‘ragged rock in the restless waters’ which serve only to reveal that the true nature of our existence is one in which permanency is characterised by abiding ‘moments of agony’ – such is ‘the primitive terror’.

“And the ragged rock in the restless waters, Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it; On a halcyon day it is merely a monument, In navigable weather it is always a seamark To lay a course by: but in the somber season Or the sudden fury, is what it always was”

Eliot describes ‘Time’ as both our ‘destroyer’ and our ‘preserver’. The only thing that keeps us alive is the very thing that brings about our demise. Eliot is urging us to see this deeper truth that our moments of happiness display. We have these experiences, he says, but are want to miss their meaning.

So what do I take from this as a doctor? Like moments of happiness, health is but temporary. In due course normality will be restored and we will all succumb to the ravages of time. It will ultimately destroy us. I don’t mean that we should resign ourselves to a life of melancholic anticipation of death, but we should, I think, appreciate health for what it is – a state of being that we should value whilst we have it.

Furthermore, as doctors, we should be realistic in terms of what we can expect to achieve for our patients. We are, after all, only doctors. We should make every effort to tend the sick and whenever possible endeavour to effect a cure.

But just as important perhaps is how we encourage our patients to value their health as the fragile state it truly is and we would also do well to consider how we might prepare them for the inevitability of death. Colluding with patients that with the right combination of pills, and sufficient attention to lifestyle, death will be avoided is dishonest and, perhaps, detrimental to all our chances of enjoying the life that we have.

To continue on a more positive note, it should be remembered that ‘The Dry Salvages’ is but the third of Eliot’s ‘The Four Quartets’. The fourth, ‘Little Gidding‘ offers us some hope of redemption. Ironically perhaps, the reader is asked to reflect on their experience of what they have read earlier and understand that they may indeed have missed the meaning. There is redemption but it is a redemption not from, but through death.

What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from… We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

Similarly then, might we, and our patients, know happiness, not by the avoidance of all sadness but rather through experiencing sorrow in all its dreadful intensity? Too often I make the mistake of thinking that I can only be happy when I’m not sad, and so, when unhappiness steals its inevitable way into my life, I am left feeling that I can no longer know what it is to be happy. Foolishly, before allowing myself to smile again, I insist on striving to put an end to everything that reduces me to tears, on endeavouring to put everything right.

But I simply cannot do it. Whilst I hope for that time when all will be well, waiting until then before being happy only succeeds in leaving me a long time sad.

But, seemingly contradictory, happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive. In some sense we cannot know what happiness really is without knowing the pain of sorrow – and sorrow requires the memory of the temporary nature of happiness.

To be truly happy then we cannot deny sadness – on the contrary we must embrace it. And we must learn that it is possible to know what it is to be ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing’. 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.

As Leonard Cohen sang, shortly before his death, ‘There is a lullaby for suffering and a paradox to blame’.

Understand this and we, and our patients, may experience life without missing its meaning.

******************

T.S. Eliot professed a Christian faith, converting to Anglicanism in 1927 and served as a warden at his local parish church of St. Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, London. The question arises then as to whether Eliot’s bleak view of a life, a life characterised by inherent sadness, all be it with the hope of redemption, is in contradiction to the joy that the Bible teaches results from the receiving of the gospel.

As with much in the Christian life there is a tension here, but the simultaneous experience of joy and sadness is better described as a paradox, one experienced by the apostle Paul himself who wrote of how he was ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ (2 Corinthians 6:10). Furthermore, Eliot’s line ‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’ is one that might have been used by Jesus himself.

John 6 recounts the feeding of the 5000. The following day the people come to Jesus again only to be rebuked by him when he said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). ‘You had the experience of eating the bread’, Jesus is saying, ‘but missed the meaning of what it meant to be fed’.

So what was the meaning? Undoubtedly the miracle was a sign and, as with all signs, what they point too is more important than the sign itself. Nobody on a trip to the seaside, sees a sign to the beach and stops and admires the sign rather than hurrying on to play in the sand.

The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 points to who Jesus is. By miraculously feeding so many people, Jesus is recreating God’s miraculous provision for the Israelites in the wilderness when he daily provided them with manna from heaven. In so doing Jesus is declaring himself to be God. But if Eliot is right then perhaps there is more here to be learnt.

Just as the experience of moments of happiness are meant to display our abiding sadness, might not the experience of being fed be meant to reveal our enduring hunger. Jesus’ words urging the people not to work for ‘the food that perishes’ suggests this might indeed be the case.

Being fed with bread one day leaves you hungry the next even when that bread is miraculously provided by Jesus. Hunger is the default position. As far as we know, Jesus did not feed the people when they came to him this second time. Instead he tells the people to work ‘for the food that endues to eternal life’ which, he says, will be given them by ‘the Son of Man’ (John 6:27).

Jesus then famously declares that he is ‘the bread of life’ and that ‘whoever comes to him shall not hunger’. Here is redemption – an end to all hunger – a redemption secured by looking on the Son and believing on him – a redemption that is all of God whose work it is that we should believe in the one he has sent. (John 6:29).

To have the experience of being temporary fed with physical bread and miss the meaning it points to of our perpetual hunger is to miss seeing our need for redemption by feeding on the everlastingly satisfying bread of heaven. That would be a disaster.

I think Eliot is saying something similar. Our moments of happiness are meant to point to our permanent sadness and our need for a redemption which will secure an eternal joy.

Not many of us today, in our comfortable middle class churches, know what it means to be genuinely hungry. But we do know what it is to be genuinely sick and genuinely have problems that leave us sad. Frequently, and very appropriately, we come to Jesus on account of these things to seek his help.

Now just as Jesus fed the 5000, he also healed many people, but just as the relief of the people’s hunger was temporary, so too the physical healings that Jesus performed were also only temporary. Just as the people he fed returned to him hungry the following day, so those he healed all eventually became sick again. Even Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, in time knew what it was to become ill once more and ultimately die a second time.

I wonder if sometimes, just as he rebuked the people for coming to him for food, for their physical needs, Jesus might, when all we are concerned about is our health, sometimes rebuke us for our constant requests for healing.

This is not to say we shouldn’t pray for healing, the Bible clearly gives us warrant for this, but we must be careful that we don’t use Jesus as a spiritual circus pony who must perform tricks at our bidding. Might he not sometimes say to us, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you want a healing’? Might he not urge us sometimes not to work for the healing that perishes, but the healing that endures to eternal life?

If so, when we are not healed the way we would like, when our problems are not resolved the way we would chose, just as the people were not fed the way they would have liked the day after the feeding of the 5000, might we be encouraged that the reason for this is that Jesus wants us to have something better than physical healing? Might he want us not to have had the experience but miss the meaning?

Our moments of health are but temporary and we should treasure them. But we must also see in them the meaning of our permanent sickness and our need for an eternal healing. Those who look on Jesus, who believe in him, will not spiritually die for, not only is Jesus the bread of life, he is also the resurrection and the life.

The idea that health is an aberrant exception to disease, mirroring Eliot’s suggestion that happiness is an aberrant exception to a life of unhappiness, has support from scripture. 2 Corinthians 4:16 reminds us that ‘our outer self is wasting away’. For our bodies to fail is the norm. Lately I met somebody who assured me that I would soon be out of a job on account of ‘a new wave of the Spirit’ that would, in this present age, see an end to all disease. Similarly we may have dreams of ‘making poverty history’ in the here and now but Jesus said we would always have the poor with us (John 12:8) – I suspect he could have also said we will always have the sad and the sick. But taking those words that speak of our outer self wasting away in context we again have a paradox, for it is by that wasting away that our inner self is being renewed day by day. It is this suffering, this ‘light and momentary affliction’ that is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory, beyond all comparison’. (2 Corinthians 4:17).

And ‘so we do not lose heart’. Temporarily being fed should remind us of our perpetual hunger and our need for spiritual food. Temporarily being healthy should remind us of our perpetual sickness and our need for spiritual healing. Temporarily being happy should remind us of our perpetual sadness and our need for spiritual joy. All of which we find in Jesus.

So yes we are hungry, yet always feeding, we are sick yet always being healed, and we are sorrowful yet always rejoicing. Such is the Christian life, not a contradiction but a mysterious and wonderful paradox. 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. Rather we can be simultaneously happy and sad. It is a paradox, not a contradiction.

We may see in our lives hunger, sickness and unhappiness, things that sometimes may be ordained for our good by our loving Heavenly Father in order that we might ‘look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen’ namely spiritual food, life and joy. ‘For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4:18). We all experience health and happiness. When we do we must not have the experience but miss the meaning. And so too, when we suffer and are sad, as well as recognising how the longing for happiness whispers of the happiness that really does exist for us somewhere, we must also acknowledge that there is meaning in our experiences of suffering and sadness.

We can rejoice, then, when we are sorrowful and we can give thanks in every circumstance, for we have been, are being and will be redeemed – from sorrow, through sorrow, from suffering, through suffering and from death, through death.

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