Shadows and Ashes
is the theme of the next annual conference of the Association for Medical Humanities that takes place in Sofia at the end of June. For me these words have a particular resonance at present, both singularly and in twain. I find it interesting that shadows have such a looming presence in our language and in our consciousness. As anyone knows who has tried, you can only escape briefly from your shadow. The act of leaping up in the air, liberating the body from the earth’s gravitational pull, also breaks the continuity between our actual self and our projected self, but only briefly. Upon returning to earth, we link up again and so this constant presence is so familiar to us that most of us cease to notice it except in the strongest of sunlight. But, if we are no longer aware of it in the physical sense, we often use the image as a representation of relationships that exist between us and others and our surroundings.
We think of important people as casting a long shadow because of their tall stature, real or metaphorical, but recently I have come to think of the long shadow as something that is cast at the close of day, when the sun is low on the horizon and soon light is to be extinguished. Darkness falls, another life lived and come to an end, its race run.
Some of us have known our parents well, some of us have never known our parents, and for others still our parents, or perhaps just one of them, have had a shadowy existence. What do I mean by that? I guess that I am not entirely sure, or at least unwilling to put my own interpretation on the image because, just as two people looking into a pool will see a different reflection, so too will the shadows reveal different things to each of us, just as they will conceal in equal measure. In any case I imagine that all of us, at some time or another, have found some aspect of our parents existence to be shadowy.
It is one thing to be shadowy, it is perhaps something entirely different to be shady. Here it pays dividends to be vegetable rather than animal for while a shady character is normally someone to steer clear of a shady tree is usually the exact opposite, a welcome refuge from the oppressive heat of the sun, for example. But appearances can be deceiving and what appears shady and ill-defined can become altogether less threatening when illuminated by better acquaintance. Indeed it is often a source of regret, when people have passed, that we did not get to know them better.
How often did we feel a shadow hanging over us because it was today, not yesterday and the troubles were no longer distant? Often, I would suppose – and yet, each day is a new day and an opportunity for a fresh start. As the saying goes, today is the first day of the rest of your life – which is nice. But what if it is your last day too? How did I miss the opportunity to say hello and now must say goodbye? Perhaps, I might reason, I could not have been expected to know you would leave us so soon. But sudden death is becoming a rarity in our society. More likely the appointed hour crept up as you slowly marked your progress in the valley of the shadow of death and I did not notice that you were becoming spectral, a shadow of your former self. What was I thinking, staring into the shadows?
Many people today deny the possibility of death and dying, make no preparation for it and are unable to talk about it. Our own families are no exception. When confronted with this situation recently I entered the ring bravely, confident of landing the killer blow, only to find when it came to the count that I had been shadow boxing. It took a rematch to open him up and get inside his guard.
Humanities are a means through which healthcare practitioners and others can explore these issues and by focusing the light, dispel the shadows. But for it to be effective, they should be woven into the fabric of our healthcare and take place in the everyday and not just at the closing, when the light is dim and the shadows lengthening.
And ashes? For me they bring to mind death and renaissance. At the conference in Sofia the Association for Medical Humanities will mark the end of one year and the start of the next. Some council members will step down and others will take their place. It is an exciting time to be involved in medical humanities and I look forward to engaging with our members and others at the conference and through the coming year. I particularly look forward to seeing how delegates at the conference have interpreted
Shadows and Ashes