I WRITE this just back from a party where I had a remarkable encounter with
a completely honest PR person.
“I love your column,” he said to me. “It’s the second thing I turn to, most
weeks. Obviously, if we’ve put something out, I look first to see how the story
is handled. But then I turn to your column and it always makes me feel better.
“Mind you, I can’t remember a word of it. If you asked me two days later
what was in it, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea. But I know I enjoyed it.”
A third party who was present left the room hurriedly at this point,
stuffing a handkerchief into his mouth as he walked.
But actually this is how anyone who reads too many newspapers feels. Only
occasionally do you come across something that sticks right out of the
mainstream and is not rolled away with the rest towards oblivion. Such a piece
was Sacha Bonsor’s account, in Monday’s Telegraph, of her brain
surgery and its aftermath.
In the course of the surgery, one of the nerves that carry pain signals up
from the spinal cord was injured.
“One of the problems with pain is that we do not have the words to describe
it. My pain is best illustrated by the thoughts that accompanied it: during the
week after surgery, if someone had given me a gun, I would have fired it at my
“I do not know if, as the Oxford report aims to discover, I would have been
in more pain without my faith, but I do know that, in the heat of the moment,
God did not come into it — not even for a thank you that I was alive.”
Ms Bonsor has, she says, “a strong Christian faith”. But her experience
seems to me to show up Rowan Williams’s argument, in a Times article,
against euthanasia. It is, as you would expect, subtle, careful, and well put.
The central point seems to be this: “Do I have a right to die? Religious
believers answer for themselves that they do not. For a believer to say, ‘The
time could come when I find myself in a situation that has no meaning, and I
reserve the right to end my life in such a situation,’ would be to say that
there is some aspect of human life where God cannot break through. It would be
to say that when I as an individual can no longer give meaning to my life, it
has no value, and human dignity is best served by ending it.
“That would be in the eyes of most traditional believers, Christian or
otherwise, an admission that faith had failed. It would imply that life at a
certain level of suffering or incapacity simply could no longer be lived in
relation to God.”
The problem with this argument is that faith, in that sense, does fail. At
certain levels of suffering and incapacity, life cannot be lived in any
conscious sense at all. At best it can be endured. Here is what happened to
Sacha Bonsor: “The nine-inch incision went from the top of my spine to the
middle of my head and looped over to behind my right ear. The muscle connecting
my shoulder and my neck had been severed, my skull peeled back and the
brainstem exposed to the knife.
“When I came round, I wore earplugs, lights were dimmed, I could hardly
swallow or whisper and every bit of my energy was consumed in combating the
unbearable pain that invaded my entire being.”
Slowly, though, she did recover. The operation seemed successful. When she
looked back from health restored, “I saw that the pain had rendered me
childlike, accepting: a fleeting glimpse of the state to which, as a struggling
Christian, I had been taught to aspire.” Then she had another brain
haemorrhage, requiring the operation to be redone.
“On the day itself, such moments of vision left me entirely. I lay in the
pre-med room with a fellow patient, a six-year-old girl who was having seizures
and whose relatives were being informed that, for her to live, half her brain
needed to be cut out.
“When I woke up in intensive care and realised that I could lift my arm,
something that took me three months to do last time, we all enjoyed happy
disbelief. Although the ensuing pain was intense, at no stage did I want to
kill myself. Perhaps that was because the nerve had not been touched this time,
or because I was merrily pouring cannabis drops down my throat. It was not due
to a stronger faith; if anything, my faith had felt weaker.”
When she told her mother that she had not experienced God, her mother
replied that, perhaps, God was the one wheeling her into the theatre. History
does not record the answer that the mother of the six-year-old girl in the next
bed would have given.
PAUL JOHNSON, writing in The Spectator, has a brisk way with all
these arguments about suffering and tsunamis. “Any reminder of the ultimate and
total powerlessness of human beings, made always necessary by our arrogance and
boasting, must be an act of God, and a very sensible and benevolent one, too.
“It can also be argued — and this is what our bishops, if they had any
sense, would be arguing — that such events make us think about transience and
death, and our own preparedness for our extinction and the life to come.
“So the calamity — so distressing for those individually involved — was for
humanity as a whole a profoundly moral occurrence, and an act of God performed
for our benefit.”
We have here a mystery. The same commentators who accuse the Archbishop of
twisting words or revelling in obscurity and paradox believe that there is
someone responsible for the condition of a six-year-old girl who must have half
her brain cut away, and that this person can be described as sensible,
benevolent, and profoundly moral.