Dying and the light
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Date: June 2003


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'When you're affluent, successful, have a great marriage and two beautiful children, a diagnosis of terminal cancer really ruins your day.'



 

By Nick Doughty

When you're affluent, successful, have a great marriage and two beautiful children, a diagnosis of terminal cancer really ruins your day.

I was doing just fine, thank you very much, at least according to the standards we set for ourselves in our pumped-up, don't look back, 24/7 world. Until I was invited, almost exactly a year ago, to wake up and smell the coffin.

My life as a liberal, city-dwelling agnostic never had much room in it for the 'big stuff'.

To me, the God question was like planning for a pension; somehow, you know it matters, but there never seems to be time to sort it out. I lived in the everyday delusion that surely blankets most of us - that my life would simply continue, stretching into the future.

Death would come, eventually, but not until I'd had a long and happy life, raised my children, fulfilled my ambitions. Eventually is always such a long way off, isn't it?

After my diagnosis and a few weeks of stumbling through tears and rage and fear and confusion, I started to take walks in the city, anything to get away from the turmoil inside.

One of these walks took me one Sunday, I still don't know why, towards St. Paul's cathedral. I went inside, my mood one of grim challenge. "OK, God," I said, "if you're real, if you mean anything, show me now. If you're there, now is the time. Show me."

No, the scales did not fall from my eyes. No, I did not raise my arms to heaven, proclaiming that I had seen the light. Something much gentler happened. A profound sense of peace flooded through me in that great church. Someone was with me, someone who felt my anguish and torment very deeply.

I went outside into the sunshine, walked among the tourists. I felt hungry for the first time in several days; I ate and every mouthful tasted good. My senses had come back to life and, flowing beneath it all, was this wordless reassurance, this peace.

I'm a rational person, with a distinctly unhealthy share of cynicism about the way the world works. After a few days, I started to question what had happened. I didn't shrink from the obvious conclusions. Unable to cope with what was happening to me, my mind had simply forced itself into another place where things might be more bearable.

I was literally a dying man, clutching at the straws of divine consolation. What did I have to lose by not running to God?

All fair questions, all valid, all needed asking. Since that day, though, many things have proven to me the absolute reality of what I experienced.

The first is that the peace and my sense of a living God have not left me. That is not to say I have floated through the past year on a cloud of serenity; these have been terrible times for me and for my whole family and I feel very deeply and keenly the loss of my own life and what that means for those I love. There are quite enough bad days, thanks.

But if what happened to me was a trick of the mind, the effects would not have lasted. It would have worked for a time, perhaps, but surely would have crumbled under the kind of relentless pressure that cancer brings to bear on anyone, both in terms of physical treatment and psychological stress.

Instead, the sense of peace and God's presence has always been there - sometimes in the background, sometimes swept away for a short while in the turmoil - but always returning, soothing and constant like waves on the shore.

Still, my mind wouldn't let it rest. I had to be sure (sometimes, I think I should have been christened Thomas). I engaged in the old and familiar debates about God, the question of suffering and the rest, looking to pick holes, to find the gaps.

I was determined that, if my experience was real, it also had to satisfy the part of me that seeks to understand, to rationalise.

What struck me with great force was this - that Christianity is messy and complicated, that it confronts the human condition unflinchingly and therefore truthfully. It does not present an easy model of existence. It has no simple answers on pain, suffering and loss.

It tells us that we are a mess and while it urges us to work for good here on earth, it tells us that we cannot, ultimately, save ourselves without God's help. It presents us with difficult moral choices. In a profound sense, it reflects reality.

Look at the Book of Job, described by a friend of mine as a 'terrible piece of PR' for God. It tells us that we can't know the reasons for suffering, that it comes to us all. Look at the outpourings of grief and rage and very human desires in some of the Psalms.

Look at Jesus. A man who begged to have the cup of suffering taken from his lips, if at all possible. A man who, if only for a moment on the cross, felt that his God, his father, had deserted him.

There is no attempt here to sweeten the pill, to build some kind of self-contained system that will satisfy our human minds and put it all into neat little boxes of cause and effect. Instead, there is an identification with our pain as we grope our way forwards in the dark - and an assurance that God loves us, despite our ignorance, despite what we are, what we have become.

By contrast, I found that many of today's secular, humanist arguments in the religious debate can look very weak on closer examination.

The great scientist Richard Dawkins and others like him trumpet the supremacy of reason but seem at times blissfully unaware that they have simply embraced, with an evangelical zeal, a faith of their own.

I may have spent a lot of time thinking about these questions, testing the strength of my own beliefs, but if you think I'm now feeling satisfied that I've finally cracked the case and solved the big issues, you'd be wrong.

I still find it very hard to accept that I should be taken away from my wife and family, that I will not see my children grow up. I do not rage against God for that and sometimes I wonder why not. I'm aware there's a paradox, a yawning logical inconsistency here which cannot be explained or justified.

Rational thought and argument, of course, take one only so far. For me, it is faith that bridges the gap. I do not understand, and yet I trust. It is, at times, uncomfortable. But it is enough.

There is one more thing that has sustained me over this past year and convinced me of the truth of the Christian message.

If suffering has any meaning for us, it must be in how we choose to respond to it. I am very lucky to have people in my life who have responded in amazing ways. For me, for my family, within the family itself, there has been a great outpouring of love and support.

Relationships have changed and strengthened in unexpected and marvellous ways. New fruit has grown from old vines.

Since last summer, I have lived more intensely, more fully than at any other time of my life. Amidst the pain, there has been much love and fun and laughter.

Good things that are not tainted simply because they have their origin in something terrible. Good things that have shown me the power of love and compassion, that have shown me God is indeed with us in this beautiful, broken world.

Nick Doughty is a writer for television and film and a journalist


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