‘Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.’
Recently I watched ‘The Dig’, the excellent new Netflix Film based on the Sutton Hoo archeological excavation. It is well worth a watch. Alongside the story of Basil Brown, the amateur archaeologist who, in 1938, began exploring what lay beneath a grassy mound near Woodbridge in Suffolk, the film explores the importance of trying to hold on to the transient by remembering the past.
I’ll not spoil the film for those who have yet to see it, but the character of Rory is at one point asked what it was that drew him to photography. He gives the answer, ‘It’s just a way of trying to fix things as they go past, to keep what’s vital from being lost’.
‘To keep what’s vital from being lost’. I suppose that’s what, in large measure, we who are doctors, along with all those in healthcare and, indeed, many other fields too, are trying to do in our work as, daily, we act to try to preserve the preciousness of life. But we are not up to the task. Like the character who is distressed by his failure to protect the one he had been charged to care for, and no matter how much, like him, it’s not what we want to hear, we too have to be sometimes reminded of the truth: ‘We all fail, every day. There are some things we just can’t succeed at, no matter how hard we try.’
A little later in the film Rory asks Peggy, one of the site archaeologists, what would be left of them both if a thousand years were to pass in and instant. Looking around her Peggy replies, ‘Parts of your watch, the torch, fragments of the mug’. Rory then adds what Peggy’s words have left unspoken, ‘But every last scrap of you and I would disappear’.
It’s a sobering thought, one which brings with it with an implication, expressed in the words of another character who reveals what she herself has come to realise, that ‘Life is very fleeting. There are moments you should seize’.
But if there are moments that we should seize, then there are moments that we should remember. Because the past is part of who we are, part of what makes us what we are today and part of what will determine our tomorrow. I’m not referring here merely to our own personal back story, on the contrary, as the film seeks to portray, we are all shaped to some extent by the whole of human history.
As Basil Brown has to be reminded, his work ‘isn’t about the past or even the present. It’s for the future. So that the next generations can know where they came from. The line that joins them to their forebears.’
Our past, it is suggested, will last longer than our future.
So, as we consult with our patients, perhaps we should sometimes cease from our constant striving to achieve those things which we can not hope to succeed at and seek instead to remember together what it is that we are all a part. As individuals ‘We die. We die and we decay. We don’t live on.’ But, as Basil Brown replies to the one who speaks these stark words, ‘From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous’. As a result, Brown claims, ‘We don’t really die’.
It’s a comforting notion but is it one that’s true? For, no matter how prettily we try to wrap it up, the ugly reality is that we do all die. Even so, perhaps there is something worth thinking about here. If we make our lives only about ourselves and what we can experience or achieve, all of what we are will indeed die with us. But if we are part of something bigger, something we gladly accept our being a part of, something vast that continues on beyond the few years of our existence, then there is a sense in which what we are does indeed continue after our death.
Sometimes we, as well as our patients would do well to be encouraged to appreciate this bigger picture. Because sometimes, rather than looking in, it is better to look out, rather than looking down, it’s better to look up, and rather than looking forward, it’s better to look back.
Without denying the ugliness of death, we all need to remember the beauty of life. There are moments that we do indeed need to fix as they go past, moments that ground us in something bigger than the here and now, moments that will stop us from being lost in our own individual present and, perhaps, enable us to muster some hope for our future. Maybe it is the inability to do this that contributes to the tragedy of dementia, that cruel disease that vividly displays for us the importance of our need to remember, that we are not meant to live merely in the moment, that we are not meant to live such lonely disconnected lives.
But if we would do well to see our lives as a small part of the whole of human history, might we not do even better by considering if we might not be part of something even greater still? I believe we would. And that’s why, unlike Alistair Campbell, who famously said that he didn’t, I do ‘do God’, both here and, yes, occasionally, with my patients too. For me it’s too important not to. It is dishonest to pretend that medicine has all the answers to the problems that we are presented with, not least that of our own inevitable demise. Our lives are about far more than merely attending to our clinical parameters in the vain hope of eking out a few short additional years of life. For, no matter how meticulous we are in adhering to clinical guidelines, all our lives will, in time, draw to an end.
Even so, it is my belief that my death will be but temporary, for I consider that my life really is a part of something far bigger than my own individual existence, that life really is all about someone who is far greater than me, and that that someone really will one day restore everything to how it was always meant to be. And it is all on account of what has happened in the past that, regardless of how difficult the present might be, I can remain confident that the future really will be as good as it has been promised to be.
Because the dig really is worth it in order that we might uncover what happened, not under a grassy mound in Suffolk but on top of a green hill far away. Like Basil Brown could say of Sutton Hoo, I can say of Calvary, that ‘a man could dig the earth his whole life through and not find anything like I’ve discovered here’. For there is found the greatest treasure of all, in amongst which is a future where every tear will have been wiped away and death shall be no more.
For me then, if we are to not really die, it’s that particular historical event that we all need to remember. It’s that which is truly vital, it’s that which must not be lost.
To read ‘Something to feast your eyes on’, click here
To read ‘Don’t forget to be ordinary, if you want to be happy’, click here
To read ‘Hope comes from believing the promises of God’, click here
To read ‘On being confronted by the law’, click here
To read ‘The Resurrection – is it just rhubarb?’, click here
To read ‘Easter Sunday’, click here
To read ‘Good Friday’, click here