What a difference a year makes

If you were reading my blog about this time last year, you’ll remember that I wrote quite a lot about the health problems I was having. After my RARP (Robot Assisted Radical Prostatectomy) I developed osteomyelitis of the symphysis pubis – a bone infection of the pelvis. This is such an unusual complication of the surgery I’d undergone, that it was some time before it was recognised and diagnosed, by which time I had been in real pain, practically unable to walk, for about five weeks. The treatment prescribed was three months of antibiotics, and about the time of the spring equinox last year, I had been on ciprofloxacin for a week, and not yet seeing noticeable easing of the pain. I noted in my diary that I went out for a walk – aided by my two walking poles – and managed about a couple of hundred metres and back.

It was a grim time, and there was further unpleasantness to come, in the form of acute urinary retention which required a urethrotomy. One of the things that helped me cope with this whole months long ordeal, was telling my story. I told it to anyone and everyone I thought would listen. I told it so often and in such horrifying detail that it probably drove my family and friends to distraction. Fortunately they had the wisdom, the patience, and the grace to listen, because telling your story is a healing thing. Victims of far worse traumas than mine – rape, war, genocide – have all testified how telling their story can help, even if there’s an element of it forcing you to relive the bad time.

For me there are still ongoing maintenance procedures I have to do, chiefly intermittent self-catheterization, which sounds terrifying but proves to be manageable even for someone as squeamish as me. It’s amazing what you can do when there’s no alternative. But as 2020 began, we began to think that this year we could get away for holidays and breaks again, in a way that was impossible in 2019. Nothing as ambitious as overseas travel, because foreign health insurance was likely to be difficult to obtain. Instead, we planned a progress north to see some of the cathedrals and medieval abbeys we we have never visited or would like to revisit. This was to finish with a week’s retreat on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, one of our very favourite places. A thin place, a place where you really feel that you can draw near to God.

And then came Covid-19.

It has turned the world upside down, in a way that seems more extraordinary and frightening than any of the other disasters that have befallen the world in the 70 years I have known. In October 1962, when I was only 13 years old, the Cuban Missile Crisis convinced many people that we were on the brink of a Third World War which would destroy us all. I have hardly any recollection of it – certainly not of being unduly terrified at the time – though I know some of my contemporaries who were more aware of world events shared that great fear. The Vietnam War was terrible, but far away from being an immediate threat to our survival. Likewise the Gulf War(s), 9/11, and all the subsequent Middle East horrors. Suddenly an invisible killer is out there in the world, and all the powers we have been accustomed to look to for help seem powerless against it.

Each day that passes brings news of further restrictions, as the Government struggles to find the least worst way forward in dealing with the crisis. It often has the look of people thrashing about in the coils of a monster that is dragging them inexorably towards destruction. Apparently our Prime Minister was driven by enormous ambition to reach the place he is now. I’ve found myself wondering whether he regrets that now… Or would it be worse if he’s sitting in No. 10 thinking he really is the man for this hour?

We’re hoping to stay well, and if that doesn’t happen, we’re hoping to survive (what a thing to come to!) Perhaps we really are coming to a time when Bishop Ken’s hymn becomes real:

Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
And live this day as if thy last…?

How would my thoughts, words, actions be different, if I considered that every journal entry, every blog post, every phone call, every conversation, might be my last? Not many of us are ready to think like that. Maybe we should cultivate how to be.

Being a man

Retirement. It’s a time that any philosopher – and who doesn’t want to become a philosopher when they retire? – can delight in. A time for taking stock of your life: for looking back, for looking forward, most of all I hope for living fully in this present moment. A time for reflecting on the meaning(s?) of life, and of death, of the universe, and everything.

And here’s one of the things I’m finding. That this time of reflection is calling into question many of the things I’ve been taking for granted for most, if not all, of my life. Like who I am, including just being a man.

Yes, just as the present time is a hard time to be a Christian, or to be any variety of religious at all, so too it’s a hard time to be a man. And I don’t mean that in the way that the anti-feminists do, who think women have things so much their own way these days, that it’s men who are the disadvantaged sex. That’s just a load of BS.

No, it’s in the light of all the recent news and discussions about the ways men have thought and spoken about women, have abused and exploited them in the workplace, in relationships, have treated them as objects for their own ends. From the Weinsteins and Trumps of this world, who think that abusing women is something they have a right to do because they have the power, right down to the wolf-whistling builders and gropers in crowded places. And probably, unbeknownst to many of us, even by us who have never meant to be abusers, but just didn’t know any better.

Just the other day we were eating lunch in a local restaurant. At the table behind me were four young people, probably no more than older teenagers. A boy and three girls, two of whom looked as if they may have been Indian sisters, and the other a blonde girl who looked as if she might have had Downs Syndrome. I noticed them because the boy was talking so loud I could hardly hear myself think, let alone take part in the conversation among my own (hardly quiet) family. He sounded as if he was on some kind of soapbox, as if he was actually haranguing these poor girls, pontificating as only an opinionated male can, setting out what he knew and believed as if it could not possibly brook dissent or contradiction. Alas, the words that stood out most from the stream of verbiage were ‘Scripture’ and ‘baptism’: as if to pour vinegar into my wounded soul, the noisy young Alpha male was also a ‘Christian’.

So where does this kind of attitude and behaviour come from? This youth was no hardened male chauvinist, cauterised in the fires of a long life of domination over women. He did, it’s true, look and sound like a boy who had ‘benefited from’ a private education. Was this the way his private school was teaching him to think of, relate to, and speak to women? Even worse, was it the way his church or Christian fellowship taught him that men should speak to women? Was it the way his father spoke to the boy’s mother and sisters, or to his female colleagues, and other women of his acquaintance? Had he just imbibed it from his peers, from social media or contemporary culture? Is it genetic, in our nature, or only in our nurture? Or, God forbid, both?

There was a degree of Verfremdung about the whole event, because this wasn’t some middle-aged hooligan or boor, but a member of a generation which, I would have hoped, might have been learning, or be being taught, better. So that I felt all the more embarrassed for my sex. All the more resolved: this is not how I want to be. And if I have been this way, I ask for the grace to change, and if necessary to make amends at least to some of the women I may have wronged.