Day 23 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

Today’s offering is a philosophical one.

Intensive Thoughts

The tiny form in the see-through Perspex crib breathes in and out with the respirator, dangling wires monitoring the new-born heartbeat.

When you are faced with something as unexpected as your just-delivered baby being diagnosed with a fatal heart condition, you begin to question everything you previously knew, or thought you knew. You gaze at the scrap of humanity in front of you – flesh of your flesh; bone of your bone – and instinctively you wonder why you had to go through eight hours of agony (no drugs) if the child you pushed into the world is going to leave it in just a few short hours. You ask yourself why this should happen to your child – why everyone else you know has had a straightforward experience of birth, able to hold their babies, cuddle them, feed them. You took it for granted that you would do that too; instead, you have a mass of wires and a beeping machine separating you from your baby as effectively as any six-foot high wall.

You want to know where God is in all of this, how a loving God can allow a helpless, innocent baby to be born with his arteries the wrong way round and require open-heart surgery within the first week of his life. And then this thought opens up the floodgates for a whole stream of questions to come pouring forth: Why does God allow suffering? Hunger? War?

The problem of pain is one that has baffled us for centuries – if not millennia. We want an ordered world that makes sense, one in which – to quote Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s famous play, ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ – “the good end[ ] happily and the bad unhappily”. Instead, we are faced with any number of senseless horrors: children blown apart by landmines; thousands dying every day because they have no access to clean water; lives lost due to car accidents, terminal disease or freak ‘acts of nature’.

 C S Lewis, the author and Christian apologist, struggled to make sense of life when he lost his wife to cancer. In his heartfelt book, ‘The Problem of Pain’, he wrote that “God whispers to us in our pleasures … but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

But do we need a megaphone such as this? Is Lewis suggesting that without the experience of suffering we are less than human? Surely it is not suffering that distinguishes us from other animals but rather our response to it: why else would thinkers, theologians and philosophers have spent hundreds and thousands of years trying to establish why some people suffer and others do not?

You are still pondering the question as you sit by your baby’s bedside, hour after hour. At first, his arms and legs sprouted needles – it was the only way to ensure he was topped up with the sugar and water mixture dubbed ‘maintenance’ by the hospital staff. After the first twelve hours, his tiny veins were exhausted and so now a cannula has been inserted into the top of his head, an image reminiscent of some bizarre experiment by Doctor Frankenstein. Your heart breaks; your mother’s instinct is to hold him close, but all you can do is sit and watch as one hour slowly slides into the next, as the world outside darkens and midnight approaches once more.

Is he aware of what’s going on? you wonder. Does he know his life hangs in the balance, that the next twenty-four hours and then the next could determine whether he lives or dies?

Through it all, your son sleeps peacefully, a perfect baby apart from the transposed greater arteries which render him incapable of surviving without a ventilator. When he wakes, he is quiet and placid, despite the needles inserted in his flesh, despite the allergic reaction to his medication which has made one of his legs swell to an elephantine size. You marvel at his composure, amazed that someone so tiny can remain so philosophical in the midst of pain, in the shadow of impending death. You, on the other hand, are a quivering wreck – the Perspex crib too similar to a tiny coffin on wheels to allow you much hope for the future.

By morning, you are utterly exhausted. The “dark night of the soul” has forced you to confront all your untried and untested theories about life, about death. Your body wants to sleep, but you refuse to move, not wanting to miss any of his waking moments in case this one is the last.

That’s when your philosophy is reborn. Pain is not a megaphone but a handbrake: it’s God’s way of forcing us to slow down as we hurtle through life, constantly seeking a better job, a bigger house, a perfect partner. If we were truly aware of the transience of life – if we knew in advance exactly how our days were numbered – surely we would prioritise our time differently, ensuring that we appreciate each moment spent with loved ones instead of erroneously thinking that we can ‘always see them tomorrow’.

Time slows with this new approach. Each minute your child is awake is suddenly more precious, a time to be savoured. Finally, you are allowed to pick him up – still attached to all his wires and leads – and hold him next to your heart. He’s as light as air, as fragile as a flower, his life as transitory as a feather on the breeze. Flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone – you hold him close, knowing that, in a world of suffering, love reminds us that we are still human.

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