Oscar Wilde said a cynic knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.
The midweek doorstep clapping in the pandemic reminded us of the value (and values) of our NHS. But the pace of modern life and the “infodemic” can drive us to study prices and disregard values.
Pre-retirement, I was GP and worked in a psychiatric unit. NHS work exposed me to darker sides of human life: broken bodies, broken minds and broken teams. Work success often comes at a huge personal cost to NHS team members.
Tragedies abound in medical life: the suicide of colleagues, errors, well-managed cases where deaths result (while major mistakes often result in no harm). Life’s roulette wheel throws up ever so many illnesses or traumas.
NHS life, like warfare, corners people, so that the great questions of existence cannot be blotted out with sex-alcohol-illicit drugs consumerism. World War One killed European religion, where The Origin of Species was barely a ripple. Suffering more commonly forces a change of philosophy than intellectual factors.
And that’s how a new chapter in my life began. Weary of life as a GP in a grim Welsh town, I sought somewhere free of heroin and needles or syringes.
Faith in people, morals and the NHS restored
The CalMac ferry slid up the fjord-like sea loch off the Mull of Kintyre, taking me on a new adventure. The Isle of Islay was a place of regeneration, different but very similar to my County Derry upbringing in Portstewart.
My deeply-challenged faith in people, in morals and in the NHS was restored when providing relief GP cover on Islay. The dignity of the people was a healing ointment on wounds from earlier medical work.
But, one experience sticks in mind from all my activities there. A night call lead to me fixing up an air ambulance transfer to Glasgow. In Wales, calling the central ambulance line had become mundane, so that the structure, organisation, effort, energy and synergy of a massive NHS team was taken for granted. But, driving back from the island hospital, this all changed, when the airstrip lights were suddenly switched on against a darkening Hebridean sky.
Then, I saw a tiny speck of light on the horizon, almost star-like – an ambulance plane on its way. That memory stays with me as a reminder of the myriad of voices and fingers and feet, all serving the UK public in the NHS: a light in the darkness.
And that’s how a new vista opened for me, at a New Year party in a Freemasons’ hall in Islay. Being placed at the top table with a Presbyterian minister was not my idea of fun. But, the seafood was superb, the whisky flowed, and conversation was easy.
The minister gave a brief talk about cohesion in even the most broken parts of life. He considered the impact of the World Wars on his Islay flock. He believed children separated from parents, by accident or war, inevitably come to see their unknown parent in themselves, because a thread (hidden or invisible) interconnects everyone.
Appreciate the bare bone basics
The glory of creation in Islay also had a therapeutic value – the Oa peninsula, Gruineart, Beinn Bheigeir, Loch Gorm. Claggain Bay was a special sanctuary. It was a joy to light a fire, brew tea, watch the night come down, and be disturbed only by seals or deer.
One place in Islay, though, had a deeper impact – the 1,000-year-old Celtic cross at Kildalton. Islay sowed seeds which later sprouted, drawing me to consider One Solitary Life, and be ordained as an evangelist after NHS retirement.
We are, fundamentally, spiritual creatures, and materialism is a self-deluding fallacy
The post-pandemic time draws us to live simply and appreciate the “bare bone basics”. And, maybe to reflect on how “ideas have consequences”.
We are, fundamentally, spiritual creatures, and materialism is a self-deluding fallacy. CS Lewis commented on how we cannot trust any of our thoughts, even the all-powerful materialism narrative, if we are only thinking what the bouncing billiard ball electronic impulses in our neurons are deluding us to believe.
James Hardy is a retired NHS medic with an MA in applied theology and an interest in spirituality