What price resilience?

But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit

Sin’ auld lang syne…

Let’s tak a cup o’ kindness yet

For auld lang syne

In 2020 we wandered many a weary mile and now, at the start of 2021, here we go again.

At the end of one year and the beginning of another, when, having been doing this for months it feels like we’ve only just begun, perhaps, like me, you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed. Or perhaps you’ve felt overwhelmed for months, perhaps you don’t know how much longer you can carry on. Either way, I hope you’ll bear with me a little longer.

One Christmas a few years ago I watched the BBC adaptation of ‘Little Women’. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the kind of programme I would naturally be drawn to, I enjoyed it and found it genuinely moving. Let’s just say, on a number of occasions I found myself affected by what I can only assume was a speck of dust in my eye. Watching it I was struck by the ability that the characters had to bear great hardship. On several occasions in the story, there were those who spoke of the need to bear together the trials their were experiencing – trials that included the anxiety of having a relative away at war, the pain of experiencing a debilitating illness and the sorrow of having to look on powerlessly as a loved one died. Though it was only a story, this ability to accept suffering, and bear it together, has a place in real life too.

I wonder, however, if today we have lost our ability to bear with suffering, to sometimes simply endure what life throws at us. We have, perhaps, come to assume that we have a right to comfort and ease and, when that dream falters, we have become accustomed to the NHS, and others, always being there to rush to our aid. We may even have foolishly developed the notion that there is no limit to the help that can be provided – that no problem ever needs to be put up with.

If we have come to believe this however, we are deluded. If one thing in life is certain, it is that, to a greater or lesser extent, hard times will come to us all. And sometimes there is no earthly solution to the difficulties we face. Sometimes they simply have to be endured – maybe for weeks, maybe for months. Maybe even for years. Sometimes the pain just has to be borne.

With the current Coronavirus pandemic this has become all too evident.

Both those who are ill and those working in the health service and elsewhere to support them in their sickness need to have a healthy dose of realism. We aren’t always as tough as we would like to be and we can’t always assume that we’ll be able to always cope. Simply demanding that we, or others, be more resilient, is neither helpful nor realistic. Furthermore, demanding that we be more resilient can even add to our burden. When the problems really are too much, it’s OK to find ourselves broken and awash with tears. Sadly, on those occasions we may have to simply bear the pain. Only it won’t be simple. On the contrary, it will be terribly hard.

Sometimes the problems are too many for even the most capable

Sometimes the problems are too complex for even the most wise.

Sometimes the problems are too heavy for even the most strong.

And so, inevitably, days will come along which are just too much – when the demands put upon us exceed that which we are able to cope with. Our best efforts to meet the overwhelming need drains us of every ounce of energy we posses. Sometimes we can be so overwhelmed that it can feel that our inability to deliver the impossible reflects negatively on us, that our failure to solve every problem suggests some moral failure on our part. But we must try not to feel like this because there is no shame in being asked for more than we have and only being able to give all that we’ve got. We are, after all, only human.

Just as there have been in recent months, the coming weeks will continue to see some of those working within the NHS, in teaching, social care and a thousand other areas, being hailed as heroes. And I will be grateful for all their efforts. However, though heroics are often demanded of us, we’re none of us always heroic. Not all of us have superhuman levels of resilience. In fact none of us do. To make the mistake of thinking we can meet every need will only crush us more. We do not help ourselves by being that foolish.

So we need to be realistic. For many of us, the demands of our job, and indeed our lives, have long been overwhelming. But never more so perhaps than at present. Covid-19 has made all our lives harder and these difficult times seem set to remain for a significant while yet. And so, when the calls for help from those who are sick and suffering just keep on coming, those in the front line ought not be surprised when days come along when it is all too much.

Sometimes that is sadly just the way that it is, the nature of the job – the nature, perhaps, even of existence. Whilst we might bemoan the actions of others, and let’s face it we’re all good at that, it is not always somebody else’s fault that our day has been hard. We need to accept that sometimes, in the midst of a Coronavirus epidemic for example, the job of health care professionals, and others, will, as a consequence, be significantly harder. And whilst not encouraging a resigned fatalism, we need to accept that when it is, that harder time will have to be borne for a while, not only by those in the NHS but also by society as a whole. Complaining about it won’t help anyone, far from it. Instead what will help is if we bear the problem together. Blaming others only serves to isolate us still further, at the very time when, despite distancing ourselves from each other, we most need others alongside us.

Though it may cost us to do so, we need to support one another especially those who find the struggle hardest. That includes those who are sick but also those with whom we live and work alongside. We must not demand that they are superhuman. If we aren’t very careful, exalting NHS workers as heroes, will become a new way of doctors playing an old game – that of playing God.

The truth is that none of us are always as resilient as we’d like to be, and when we aren’t we may be the ones who struggle the hardest and need the most help. I am fortunate to work in a practice where that support is readily found and I am grateful to all those I work with that this is the case. I am grateful that there are those who help me: other doctors, nurses, HCA’s, optometrists and pharmacy staff; reception, clerical, cleaning and managerial staff – and patients too who, for the most part, appreciate the pressures we are under. Each and every week there are those who have urged me to look after myself. Cliched though it is to say it, we really are all in this together.

Sometimes I help others, sometimes others help me.

Medicine is a wonderful thing. It can ease many burdens – but not all. Like those who practice it, it has its limitations and will never bring about a world where sickness and death is no more. For that we will have to look elsewhere. I am not suggesting that medicine should therefore stop trying to find new ways of alleviating suffering, far from it, but none the less, it too must maintain that healthy dose of pessimism that reflects the reality that not every need can be met, and that nobody lives for ever. We all need that healthy dose of pessimism. Sometimes we should go the extra mile but we mustn’t lose sight of our limitations, our inability to meet impossible demand and that even despite our best efforts, some of those who get sick will have bad outcomes.

Sometimes, when there is no longer any earthly solution to sickness and disease, when medicine has reached its limit, we mustn’t be afraid to acknowledge our weakness and our inability to help as we would like. Sadly I fear this is going to be an all too common experience in the weeks ahead. Even so, as we look on and watch as others, even our friends and family, suffer and die, we will do well if we can still bear with them in their suffering, if we can share in their sadness and ‘weep with those who weep’.

So when the going gets tough, what about those who don’t feel tough enough to keep going? What about those who lack, for now at least, the necessary resilience? Do we demand they toughen up as we regale them of the superhuman efforts of the strong? No. Instead we pick them up and carry them just as far as we can because those who are overwhelmed by the avalanche of need are no less worth carrying than those who are sick.

I wasn’t born yesterday – but I may need to be borne tomorrow.

And when the day inevitably comes when I am too heavy to carry, when my needs become too great, beyond anyone’s ability to meet, lay me down and, if you can, remind me of my firm belief that, even in our greatest weakness there is still one whose strength we can rely on, a God who will carry us, not only ‘to our old age and gray hairs’ [Isaiah 46:6] but for ever after too.

Even then, if you can, I hope you’ll bear with me a little longer.

And I’ll try to do the same for you.

Because to bear things alone would be truly unbearable.

And so, if, or perhaps when, someone I love is dying from Covid-19, it is my hope that I’ll be able to go to them and be with them as they die. And I pray that by God’s grace I’ll have the strength and courage for that to be the case. Because love really is more important than life.

So let’s drink that cup of kindness yet ‘for auld Lang syne’.

Happy New Year.

This is an updated version of a blog written three years ago about a time which, though felt tough then, now seems like a walk in the park

For ‘Covid-19, does it suggest we really did have the experience but miss the meaning?’, click here

For ‘Some trust in chariots’, click here

For ‘But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope’, click here

2 responses to “What price resilience?”

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