Hilary White, Rome Correspondent


Hard lessons

Hilary White, Rome Correspondent

Note: Hilary White is LifeSiteNews.com’s Rome correspondent.

March 17, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - I must apologise to readers for my absence from these pages in the last couple of weeks. Things have been happening in my personal life that are so interesting that they have actually made the minutiae of European Union directives, the thrilling back-and-forth of Westminster’s parliamentarians, and even the most solemn pronouncements of Vatican dicasteries seem dull and unexciting. I know; it’s hard to imagine.

But cancer has a way of overshadowing even the most fanatical obsessiveness, and I am confident that when the time comes, the world will still be out there, up to no good and ready to be reported upon.

I was compelled to go to the emergency room of the Gemelli hospital in Rome last week and was admitted after being informed that results of a biopsy taken the previous week have shown a malignancy. This was after several weeks of increasingly alarming symptoms and doctor visits, so it was not entirely a surprise.

I have undergone exploratory surgery and more tests and am told that I may hope for a positive outcome, but I anticipate that my offerings will continue to be a bit scarce here for a while yet. I must turn my attention to a more private war for a while, and there is as yet no way of knowing whether it will be Thermopylae or Plataia.

I suppose it is significant that I was admitted to hospital on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian’s annual time of personal submission: “Here I am, Lord, helpless in my flaws and failings and sins, ready to be rescued.” I won’t hesitate to admit that my initial reaction, despite half expecting the diagnosis, was complete panic. If I had not been helped, literally from one second to the next, to keep going forward, I am not sure how things would have transpired.

But in the last week, and especially while in hospital for those few days and in the grip of those fears, I have begun to see meaning in the chaos. I am always reticent about ascribing spooky significance to whatever happens to us in life; I’m inclined to think that sort of thing is a form of presumption. Who are we, after all, to decide from our own blindness and finitude which actions and events are consequential from the point of view of eternity? But I am willing to say at least that the date was appropriate.

There is always something lacking in life, things we have failed to do or to do correctly, things we would give nearly anything to undo. I have had some time to think about these in the last few weeks and have had my moments where despair crept close. But there is about the inescapable reality of a medical crisis the power to chase away such temptations.

It is only too easy to go through life assuming that “some day” one will be able to make up for things, to fix things and re-set one’s life on the proper course. When faced with the real possibility that time is now up, there is only one recourse.

With this kind of episode, in which one has no more choice but to submit in complete helplessness to the care of others, one realises the meaning of our radical dependence, on other people for our survival and on God to undo or make up for mistakes. Only God can undo sin. The only thing I had the power to do in the last week was to go forward still carrying all the tatty baggage of my life, all my wars, all my defeats, all the damage I have done to others and myself.

One of the things I have thought about is the value of what I do. Sometimes the things we write about as journalists can seem trivial, particularly when staring cancer in the eye. It is politics, if I may make so bold as to correct Mr. Ford, not history, that is bunk. In the larger view, the news, particularly political news, is by its nature ephemeral, a never-ending stream of passing and perfunctory kerfuffle.

It is true, I believe, that in the largest sense politics is trivial, but its consequences are not. The consequences of modern politics and political theory, of the social changes they have brought about, are what we are really writing about every day. There is a war on between two totally opposed worldviews, two cultures radically at odds.

This week, I saw clearly one of the biggest differences between them. I saw up close that the old culture is one of personal involvement, where the new, post-Christian, postmodern culture is one of radical abandonment and atomisation.

In the last few weeks, I have had to confront my dependence on God and on others. At the risk of being accused of sharing too much, I will admit that I left home very young, at fifteen, and have grown so accustomed to fending for myself in the world that I have taken it for granted that I am dependent only upon me. I have assumed, as a product of the 1960s sexual revolution and the divorce generation, that I am alone and must survive without help.

This great social revolution, the turning away from ancient social assumptions like the indissolubility of marriage, the duties of parents to children, of families to their elders, have inculcated in me a presumption of abandonment, and as a result I am shocked by the care and love I have suddenly experienced. I am, in a way, typical of the modern world that holds “autonomy” as its highest principle, in that I have learned to expect nothing from it.

Abortion and euthanasia, and all the modern abuses of human life and dignity, all assume the same thing about our natures: that we are alone and that no help is coming. We have made of our society a Hobbesian dystopia in which only the strong and rich win. 

While I was in the hospital, I was often overwhelmed with fear. A hospital, especially one in a foreign country, can be a scary place, even without a diagnosis of cancer. On Friday morning, I woke up at 5:30 am. after surgery the night before. It was dark and I was in pain, with tubes and thirst and fear. I admit I started to weep. I had expected, being accustomed to the coolly detached style of North American health care, to be allowed to continue uninterrupted. To my surprise, a nurse came in and took my hand. She patted my head and in broken English asked why I was crying. She stayed a few minutes with me until I had calmed.

In the Gemelli, I learned what a difference a worldview makes. In Italy, especially in a Catholic hospital, one learns the great strength of the Italian national character, so deeply formed by the Catholic faith in the personal. There is a commitment here to the person that results in warmth and kindness, a gentleness that I have never experienced in any North American or British health care facility.

I have had a sharp lesson in the last few weeks, and I am under no illusions that I have yet learned deeply what I am being taught. A lifetime of the presumption of cold, Anglo-North American self-reliance will take a while, and probably more Italian hospital visits, to undo. But the lesson is the same as the one the pro-life movement is trying to teach the whole world, that God does not abandon us and we are not free to abandon each other. That love is the higher law than autonomy.

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