Hospitals, Healing, and Becoming a Person

On Monday night I took an emergency appointment at the out-of-hours clinic here at the Leicester Royal Infirmary. Returning to Eye Casualty first thing the next morning, it transpired that I was suffering from a corneal ulcer: unbelievably painful, I was cowering in the light like a vampire. Every day I returned to the hospital to see a consultant’s registrar and I was prescribed more eye drops. Almost a week later, I am now making a full recovery, it seems.

Hospitals are funny places. The human body is fragmented into constituent parts and everything that could possibly go wrong with those parts. There’s the eye section; and there’s the cancer ward; and over there is the burns unit; there the cardiac section, and so on. This modern, systematic dissection of the human into its various organic parts is of course necessary when locating the source of a person’s pain. But I wonder about what it’s all for.

Not wishing to sound insane; there is of course the obvious reason for wishing to save my vision, which was certainly at risk from the corneal ulcer. But by virtue of its aims, I suppose, hospitals are by and large places which have to separate the human from the person. What I mean by this is that for hospitals to be concerned about a human’s personality – its free and full growth or atrophy – would complicate the role hospitals currently serve in society.

Of course, psychology and psychiatry exist, but these medical fields tend to do with established ‘disorders’: depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder etc. How people are to make their way in the world after (and if) they leave the grand waiting room of the hospital, is essentially beyond the concern of the hospital.

And so I return to my day-to-day life, filled as it is with anxieties and worries about my future, my work, my friends, my love-life. I wonder at the almost outrageous nature of my recovery: the hundreds of pounds probably needed to see me through the week and out the other side. I go back to the life I was leading before the emergency. And so do many other patients.

But how do hospitals reckon with the lives of humans before and after they need medical care? I am not really referring to the obvious: drinking and smoking, which has become a parody of healthy living. I am referring to our deeper, spiritual, existential lives: that which moves us into awareness of a deeper aim for our lives, the task of becoming a person. I am referring to what the cultural historian Martin Halliwell has called ‘Romantic science’ – that which pushes the boundaries of traditional science and touches on the existential.

On the one hand, the potential loss of my vision was very serious. On the other hand, however, it has merely highlighted to me something more serious in the long-term. By returning, almost immediately, to the struggles and challenges facing me in the rest of my life, I am confronted with a greater sense of possible tragedy. I am brought face to face with the health of my personality.

All my worries, anxieties, and fears do their very best at trying to enslave me, to reduce me to an object, an automaton. I look hard at how my life may be limiting my personality. What are the changes I must work towards which will help me to become a more fully creative and free person?

I am often embarrassed about my faith; it is not electric, exuberant, excited, or any other adjective denoting something overt and showy. I often feel ashamed by the ease with which I fall into fearful thoughts – my recurring fear of homelessness, for example. Knowing that Christ is liberator is one thing; but actually letting that truth work its medicine in my spirit is quite another.

Freedom is hard, and as the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev repeatedly said, most of us do not want to be free. We are quite happy being slaves to various things; the possibilities are endless. To be jolted out of the mundane, out of our comfort, is an extraordinarily painful experience, and yet existentialists have constantly returned to this experience as the pathway to freedom and the realisation of personality.

In a sense, being in hospital this week was both a retreat from this experience of awakening and it also allowed me to view it from afar. Health problems often jolt people out from some sort of pattern of living. But for most of the time this is seen as an inconvenience, as something to be overcome by returning to ‘normal’. Doctors partly measure our recovery by asking us how far our days are approximating what we used to do before we fell ill.

But maybe these are the wrong questions. Every day I want to ask myself: how am I exercising my personality today? To what extent am I admitting a spiritual dimension to existence? Do I see the world (and other people) as wrenched from its Creator, or as nature and people striving in various ways after some sort of connection with the ultimate Personality? St Paul’s letter to the Romans touches on the ways in which the whole creation is groaning for the full revelation of the perfect personality – the God-man, Jesus Christ.

In Eastern Orthodox churches, we move through the church toward the nave, and if we look up we see the icon of Christ Pantokrator (Ruler of All). To stand beneath the icon is a sacramental experience: by moving into that space with your head directly beneath the icon of Christ, you put yourself in the direct line of Christ the Liberator. As sacraments are symbolic ways of putting us in touch with the spiritual realm of existence, physically moving into the presence of the ultimate Person is a touching, transformative experience.

There is no quick fix to becoming a person, to being healed, to being free. The first step is surely realising that I want this more than anything – that it will bring me the greatest happiness and fulfilment. The next step is to move into that direct line, to let His eyes concentrate on me as I move myself from non-being into being.

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