CC Issue 19 / Literature / Reflections

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

My favourite book of all time is ‘Three Men in A boat’ by Jerome K Jerome. Perhaps that is partly because of some lingering association with the West African beaches that I first read it on before going to university. But I think the main reason for its established pole position is that it is funny. Very funny. Barely a page will go by without my pathological extroversion compelling me to share a ‘quote’ (minimum length half a page) with whoever is haplessly sitting within earshot. One such ‘quote’ which I return to time and again is the description of George in bed one morning:

‘I don’t know why it should be, I am sure, but the sight of another man asleep in bed when I am up, maddens me. It seems to me so shocking to see the precious hours of a man’s life….being wasted in mere brutish sleep. There was George, throwing away in hideous sloth the inestimable gift of time…he might have been up stuffing himself with eggs and bacon, irritating the dog, or flirting with the slavey, instead of sprawling there, sunk in soul- clogging oblivion.’

That was written in 1889, and no doubt the little chuckle I indulge in every time I read it follows many such chuckles 123 years ago. And the reason it is as funny now as it was then is that it is so true. Who else can confess to sharing a room with a friend and feeling at least a minor niggle of irritation at the sight of their roommate still warmly nestled in a ball of blankets, softly breathing away hours after you have had your morning coffee and bought the paper? Yet that Victorian reader who shares a common bond of humour with me is someone who would never have heard of a car, and their idea of the ‘welfare state’ was workhouses for the poor. So close and yet so, so far away.

On a slightly different note I was recently listening to a series of talks given to a group of students at a Christian Medical Fellowship conference in 1980 by a gentleman called John Stott. They were addressing some of the challenges and struggles facing Christian doctors, and such was the relevance of what he had to say that they seemed to speak directly into my situation as a 28 year old doctor in East London in 2012. If I didn’t know any better the talks may have been delivered 32 days rather than years ago. But as I was listening I was again struck by the realisation that my medical predecessors listening in 1980 would never have heard of emails, mobile phones or the internet, and all their music collection would be on vinyl. So close and yet so, so far away.

The concept of human progress and development is an interesting thing. At the end of the nineteenth century there was a belief in some circles that we had nearly reached the limit of scientific discovery – there would be nothing new to discover. Confidence in human progress couldn’t have been higher. And of course on the one hand life, particularly in the West, has changed and developed at the most spectacular pace in the second half of the twentieth century. In my short lifetime the internet and mobile communication have revolutionised the way we live our lives. But my rather ridiculous examples above have reminded me afresh that however much we tinker and fine tune the external paraphernalia of life, the core essence of what it means to be a human being remains unchanged. We continue to love, to laugh, to celebrate beauty. As a doctor the suffering I witness every day and the satisfaction in trying to do something about that is the same as Hippocrates experienced thousands of years ago. And sadly, just as the two world wars brought the optimism of the nineteenth century crashing down, we also realise that as humans we are just as capable of startling acts of evil as any of our ‘primitive’ ancestors.

So plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. To the glorious aspects of humanity that can be a triumphant cry of celebration. The miracle of the human heart, mind and soul! But in the dark and dingy alleyways it becomes a slogan for a kind of nihilism, an upturned eyebrow with a downturned lip that questions everything and hopes in nothing. As Easter comes round again I am reminded that for humanity, with its perpetual cycles of beauty and corruption, there is a hope of newness. For on that first Easter morning, everything changed.

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