It’s half past six in the evening, and I’m looking out the hospital window. I’ve had a long day, full of lots of seriously ill patients, and it seemed like nothing could go right. It’s dark outside, and the winter horizon has swallowed the sun early. I know there’s a car park out there, now largely empty, and behind that rows of ugly high-rise flats, but it’s too dark to make out any details. I can see patches of colour: grey, black and dark blue. Street lights and vehicle lights twinkle like stars. If I squint, I can make out the colourful tissue of the universe.
What is the meaning of life? Why did I want to work in a hospital? No, really. We extend people’s lives – even save lives now and then. Without medical assistance, they would die, or their suffering would be worse. In days of yore, you would advise someone to chew on some willow bark, but that was pretty much all you could do. Death was a more prominent part of life. Ascetics even deemed pain to be meaningful. They had their reasons for thinking that.
Why do we provide healthcare, when it produces mountains of plastic waste and costs the public a pretty penny? Especially when patients pump themselves full of junk food and cigarette smoke following recovery. Wouldn’t it be better to spend that money on education? On improving quality of life? On democracy, on justice? All those elderly people, whose intensive palliative care costs a tremendous amount of money – what do they do apart from continuing to fester in care homes? Can’t we teach patients to make peace with death, to return to God or, if they prefer, to the eternal void?
I’ve always been fascinated with ascetics, by the way. I wouldn’t mind being one, but I’m not sure I know where to find a cave to shelter in. I also realise that there’s often a certain perversity to ascetics’ actions. Their efforts to overcome their own desires kindle resentment in them towards others who don’t do the same. Take Ayatollah Khamenei, who has no issue with exterminating his own population because they don’t want to live according to his strict beliefs. Lovely, good, courageous people. What an idiot.
Not even Jesus was an ascetic, in the self-flagellatory sense. He took things as they came, which is great. I’m suddenly reminded of l’abbé Agathon by composer Arvo Pärt. It’s a choral piece, based on an old Christian story. An angel disguised as a leper asks Agathon to carry him and to give him sustenance. When he does so without complaint, the angel reveals himself to Agathon and gives him the blessing of Jesus. Agathon is one of those rare examples of a good ascetic, and yet, in part because ‘agathon’ is Greek for ‘good’, I’m inclined to regard the story as allegorical. It’s a nice story, but it never happened.
My train of thought leaves me feeling wistful, yet also tranquil. I leave the hospital and enter the cosmos. I put on my headphones and lose myself in Pärt’s music. I find myself in the process of dismissing my earlier thoughts as trivial, incoherent and deplorable when a leprous cherub descends from the heavens, lands on my shoulder and whispers into my ear: “Par charité, porte-moi là-bas”, or “Be gracious and carry me.” Sure thing, dear friend, I can do that.