‘I’m sure it all started when I fell off that bus,’ said a friend who’d been diagnosed with a serious cancer of the digestive tract.
This was a long time ago. More than twenty five years since.
The friend, a middle-aged smoker, spent all day sitting in her flat, upstairs from mine, with her de-clawed cat. Watching television and eating unhealthy food.
She took no exercise except walking to catch the bus into town. And even then, the bus stop was right outside our front door.
You can see where this might go, can’t you?
Fast forward more than a decade and I’m sitting in a family home in Texas when the phone rings. When pa-in-law returns it’s with bad news. A relative – not one of the immediate family but still, only a couple of degrees removed – has cancer.
Being the empathetic person I am (and I’m not claiming that as a praiseworthy virtue, it’s just how I am, I can’t help it), I am instantly sympathetic, sad on her behalf and ready to console.
Imagine my discomfort when there was no, ‘Poor Evangeline’ (I made up the name) but instead an instant recitation of the many reasons why she had brought this on herself.
Pa-in-law was not, I should stress, a monster – and he was far from alone in this attitude. It is an all too common phenomenon.
We don’t want to think we’ll get X, Y or Z illness so we reach for reasons someone else has drawn the short straw.
She ate too much – or just the wrong things. She was too thin – anorexia, that’s vanity for you. She smoked, drank alcohol, didn’t exercise enough. She was too stressed out, worked too hard, didn’t work at all. Spent too long watching daytime TV.
Something is always to blame.
I think this is one of the worst aspects of our western ‘civilisation’ today.
Nothing is an accident.
Nothing is beyond our control.
Nothing is down to the random throw of the dice, to sheer bad luck.
For many, many years (as the poor chap married to this serial hypochondriac will testify) I would say, ‘If I get a serious illness don’t tell your mum and dad.’
I knew all the things they could pull out of the blame bag. I’d got there first, had a list ready-made.
Yes, they’d also come up with the latest medical news, ideas for treatment, possibly even money to help – but I couldn’t stand the thought of my dearly beloved having to face, ‘Well, after all, she did…’.
It crops up too, this kind of attitude, in the media.
There’s a brash woman, fit as a flea at well over 60, who writes a column for a daily newspaper. People who drink alcohol or smoke or are obese or indulge in dangerous pursuits, she says, should have to pay our wonderful, free-at-the-point-of-delivery National Health Service for their medical treatment. Because they’re to blame.
Take that to its logical conclusion, please.
What would we do about, say, having babies?
Effective contraception is widely available. Having a baby, therefore, is arguably a choice.
So, being somewhat rational and allowing for straightforward reproduction, if you had more than two, you’d have to pay for all your medical treatment.
And if you were proved to be partial to bacon and fried egg sandwiches, you’d have to pay for treatment for any heart problems you might develop.
One of the side effects (trust me, there’s research) of these attitudes is defensiveness and evasion among those who have symptoms. Because it becomes yet another competition, with winners and losers.
I’m healthier than you. I’m stronger, fitter, better than you.
Or (jauntily) I’m older than you but I don’t need a hip replacement (that was a 70 year-old in-law on this side of the pond, just to be even-handed – and he’s not a monster either.)
When someone is sick, injured or suffering from depression, the last thing they need is to be blamed – they’re probably torturing themselves enough as it is.
And, let’s face it, bad diets and so on aside, sometimes people are just plain lucky with their health – but sometimes people aren’t.
I parade down the road on my crutches, angry that I have a problem, but in the next breath, I’m ashamed that I dare think of it as unfair. My life so far has been remarkably pain and disability free. My bones will mend, are already mending.
As I struggle to use a contraption for putting my socks on – there’s no way someone with weak arms could do it – and as I grow increasingly impatient with the fact I can’t drive for another two weeks and 3 days – I think of the lonely and the neglected.
Blame may make you (or me) feel good – in a ‘phew, I’m all right’ kind of way – but it makes someone else feel like a failure.
People with cancer, people with arthritis, people with HIV Aids or manic depression are not failures.
Apportioning blame is not just superfluous, it’s cruel.
And, no matter whether they’ve done something that contributed to their problems, shame won’t help.
Pain, misery and curtailing of ability is bad enough.
So, why not just be nice?