Jesus said that we must love others, as we love ourselves. This mandate is so clear and so often heard it is easy to skip over the second part of the sentence which is the key to good care: how we love ourselves
No meals to cook. No washing up. No school run. Yes, this conference in Durham was to me a veritable spa break, for I am a mother to young children. And in the vast quantities of free time, or at least they seemed enormous, I spoilt myself with self indulgent activities such as sleeping.
I also did what just a year ago would have been an act of madness: I rose at 6am to go for a run. It was cold, and Durham is hilly. I got a bit lost, and a definitely ran around in circles. But watching the moon and stars above the cathedral rise up as I ascended towards the finish line it seemed that it was worth the effort. And more than this, I felt I was claiming something for myself. Not just time away from my gorgeous family whom I love. But I was claiming the streets of this new city for myself, and I felt powerful doing it, pleased with my overweight, post partum body.
I have found since starting running that the body confidence that it gives has led not into the shallow pleasure of loosing a few pounds but rather it has been a holistic experience of healing. For someone who has gone through a traumatic birth and other illness experiences, trusting my body is not always easy. But slowly, as I have built up the miles, completed the odd race and tentatively listed 'running' as hobby, I have begun to claim my body back and trust it once more.
And so I claimed those Durham streets for myself. But as I ploughed around, plodding and cursing the hills, I also claimed my body and my right to be there. And I claimed those streets for all who are not where they want to be: for the over weight, the lonely, the depressed, the odd, the outsider, the desperate, the afraid, the lost, the shy. I claimed them for the ill and those who feel worthless. I claimed them for mothers who give their body for the creation of life itself. I claimed those streets and as I stood panting in the shadow of the cathedral, stuck erect over that city, I did so before the clergy came to pray and before the sun arose.
It is not every day that I get invited to BAFTA to watch a premier. In fact, it has never happened before, and I was thrilled. After a day of juggling children, I arrived glammed up and excited to meet friends. Free drink drunk, I took my seat in the plush auditorium and soaked up the event, impressed to note the seat in front of me had been gifted by Yoko for John. But as the feature began, I suddenly and desperately did not want to see what was about to happen. I knew, of course, that this was a documentary on ISIS and women, but in the rush and the anticipation of a night out, I had not thought about what I might see. And now I couldn’t leave. I had to remain and watch unfold before me stories from a world very far away from London’s busy Piccadilly.
Channel Four’s latest episode of Dispatches, Escape from ISIS, has been hailed by The Spectator as ‘so important it ought to rank with John Pilger’s exposés of Cambodia’s Killing Fields’. It documents the bravery of a group rescuing Yazidi women and girls held captive as slaves by the so-called Islamic State. It contains original footage of life inside the regime and one can almost taste the fear under which so many are forced to live. The viewer sees the young men of ISIS slumped on sofas with guns laughing about their slaves girls; the darkened smoked filled rooms where brave men plot with iPhones to rescue their women; the dull thud of rocks hitting a woman caught in adultery; the biblical scenes of escape through purple tinted fields into the arms of family members; the faceless, heroic guides who melt into the landscape once they have delivered people out of the Islamic state.
But what stays with me are the stories that are told. The story of the veiled girl with dead eyes telling us her story of being raped by her ‘owner’, then six other men, then twelve. So brutal were the rapes that she is still in pain and no matter how hard she brushes her teeth, she cannot get rid of their taste. Or the woman whose story is so traumatic that its telling provokes a panic attack so violent that she collapses. It is her fifth such episode of the day. Or the story of a pre-verbal child who tells it with a pudgy toddler hand making the sign of a slit throat. We found out at the question and answer session following the program, that one of the female interpreters killed herself after being close to these stories. It is the stories that I heard, more than anything else, that remain with me as I travelled home from the glamour and the plush seats.
For these stories are now part of my story. Normally, a trip to BAFTA would elicit a story no more interesting than a self promoting status update on Facebook or a rushed selfie posted on Twitter. But I find myself unable to forget or simply leave them behind. Watching has been costly: I cried, I felt sick and I was angered by what I saw. These are all dangerous signs because they indicate that there had been a movement from TV viewing as entertainment, education or distraction, into a place of compassion and solidarity. And it is a risky place because it has the potential to change us.
Compassion is the emotion that arises in the immediacy of innocent suffering and from solidarity with those who have to bear it. It is so much more than sympathy, or pity. As Christ suffered on earth for our salvation, so is God with all who suffer. Nothing can make sense of the suffering shown in this documentary. But God promises to be alongside all who suffer. Through Christ and what happened on the Cross, God himself is a victim and must bear witness to it first. As Bonhoeffer said, only a suffering God can help. If this is the God in whose image we are made, it is then no small wonder that the suffering experienced by our sisters causes us to cry and mourn.
And don’t be afraid of the anger either. We don’t really do anger in Christianity and especially not in churches because anger is dangerous and messy. But anger erupts in places of injustice and spaces void of love. The word ‘anger’ is from the Latin verb aggredi meaning ‘to move forwards’. It is a primary emotion, as important as love in the human capacity to survive. Think of how powerful an angry baby is and how quickly it can use anger to make others respond. Of course anger can have negative consequences, but in its positive manifestation it is unrivalled in its ability to demand justice, good relationships and the primacy love.
The change I have undergone is that I cannot forget that this is happening. And just as this documentary bears witness to stories of suffering, the Christian must carry on the work of telling the stories. Our faith is based on a story and so we know that stories change lives. The Bishop of London in his address on the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings said that communities are made by the stories that they tell. In our community which is indisputably global, the sufferings of the raped women and children taken by ISIS is our story too and we must ensure it is told over and over and over again. In love, faith and hope, even in the face of such darkness and brutality, we must keep bearing witness until there are no new stories of suffering to tell.
The Barnet Eye kindly asked me to write a guest blog on cancer, ‘so that people with cancer know that they are not alone’; that is not alone having been diagnosed and treated, and perhaps survived into remission, with one of the most common diseases in the western world. ‘Most common’ and ‘lonely’: why do these words so often go together when talking about cancer? Why is there so much loneliness in the cancer community of which I am a fully signed up member.
I remember when I was sitting through yet another excruciating chemo session, bored and sickening, an elderly woman, who I assume was being kind, came over after her treatment and squeezed my 21 year old hand and said she was very sad to see young folk who were ill.What had I done to deserved it?, she pondered. I remember this incident clearly, just as I remember the day I first went to the doctor, the kindness of the doctors and nurses, the fear in my parents eyes, the chemotherapy and the day the doctor told me I was in remission. All of that I could have predicted, if I had thought about it, before I was ill. What I wouldn’t have predicted I don’t think, was how tough I would find surviving. For I found that life after cancer was not all that it was cracked up to be. It’s tough, surprisingly, to ‘win’; it is not a completely sweet victory to beat the big C.
Cancer is a diseased burdened with taboo, still today. I grew up in the north east of Scotland which is more conservative than these sunny climes, and there I met many people of the older generation who wouldn’t even say the ‘c word’. I knew conversations were happening about me in hushed tones and people were keen to ask ‘how I knew’, so that they might too spot the ‘deadly beast’ that grows inside so silently. The sad thing is that even with survival rates increasing, cancer still wrongly means ‘death’ when even the word is intoned. Doctors say that they would rather diagnose someone with heart disease, than cancer, even though the former many be more dangerous.
After six months of chemotherapy my advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma went into remission, where it has remained for twelve years now. And of course, it goes without saying, that I am thankful. But I struggled and I wanted to find out why. And I think it might have something to do with the cancer narrative that we are supposed to go along with.
So us lot in the cancer community are forced, however kindly, into a storyline that goes a little like this. You must be strong, fight the disease, and then win. The story that we are supposed to fit into is this: shock of diagnosis, spreading the terrible news, facing gruesome treatment, into remission, happily ever after, hopefully with a new positive outlook on life which helps us to overcome great challenges, run marathons, change career and find beauty in each sunset. And then quickly go back to normal, so you can stop everyone around you feeling uncomfortable; having to speak in hushed tones is so very tiresome. We like the Lance Armstrong story (well we did until we found out he was a lying cheat), and like the idea, as Kelly Clarkson put it, that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
But I didn’t feel that way. I was in remission, but I didn’t believe myself to be braver, or stronger or more susceptible to glorious sunsets. I felt angry that I had to face my own mortality, and sure I wanted to live, but I didn’t know what to do with it now that I had it. Cancer had changed me. I didn’t bounce back into my old self. Cancer had left an indelible mark. I faced that depression that so often comes when identity crumbles, and the loneliness when you don’t fit in; I no longer fitted in with my cancer free peers nor even into my old life story.
Why had this happened? Well, I remembered that old lady in the chemo suite because I believe that she exposed the whole problem with cancer. ‘What had I done to deserve it’? She won’t be reading this which is a shame because I want to her tell that I had done nothing to deserve it, and neither had she, me in my 21 years and her in her 80 odd years. Cancer is not a moral disease which strikes the naughty. Somewhere in our subconscious we have the idea that cancer is a punishment. It strikes the childless woman, or the one who supressed their emotions. Susan Sontag wrote about this is her book, ‘Illness as metaphor’ where she looked to literature and saw that no ones dies a romantic death of cancer. The imagery is of a disease that takes us over from the inside, a demonic pregnancy as St Jerome put it in one of the earliest recordings of cancer. It is something that we have to wage war against.
Let’s expose this as wrong. For cancer is simply when something in our DNA goes haywire leading to uncontrolled cell division. You could almost say that it is life on overdrive, and it does kill, but it is simply nature.
Taboo or otherwise, it is a disease like any other which takes us to the edge, and we are forced to admit our own mortality. And it is lonely by definition to hang around at the edge. First, this is okay. It has to be, right? Maybe we are the privileged few whose faces are rammed up to the ultimate question of life and death and we can work out our own answer. Cancer changed me, irreversibly. Physically, a little, but mostly because I had to face my own mortality, and this is the lonely bit: We must all die alone.
But we also have the key to breaking the taboo and loneliness of others with the disease. Let’s tell our story to them, and to anyone that will listen. Hold them up and let people have a good look. It will make us vulnerable but something in the telling of the story heals. I am sure there is clever research somewhere that understands why this is. But if we tell our story of cancer, of fear, and maybe the funny stuff too (laughing and cancer, now that is a taboo), then we can not only find some healing for ourselves, but we free others. Free them from their fear of the disease, and perhaps free them to tell their stories too. And where there is freedom, then we can live more fully.