This may look to be a rather morbid posting but like much of what I write it has come about due to things recently happening around me that have stirred me to say something I believe to be pertinent. The subjects I am about to discuss are chosen mainly because many will not talk about them openly and honestly, yet they are part of life’s rich pattern and as such cannot be ignored. It began a few days ago when a friend posted on his Facebook page a link to an episode of the 1980’s US television series (it ran for five years), “Highway to Heaven”. I have to confess this particular TV program is one of my all time favorites. To my delight, I discovered that many (correction – all) of the episodes can now be downloaded from You Tube.
This episode particularly struck a chord as it dealt with a story around two homeless vagrants with an alcohol problem. There was a sad and a happy ending but as always there was a message of hope too. I like to identify with the hero of the program, Jonathan Smith, a probationary angel, whose mission is invariably to try to sort out some of the problematic situations people find themselves in or rather to empower folk that have been down trodden and lacked in confidence or self worth to do amazing things for the general good.
Besides the taboo of alcoholism, other taboo subjects: HIV/AIDS, Debt, Depression, Dementia and Death have cropped up in various guises during the past week. I have discussed these previously in my writings and, while what I am about to add is not particularly profound, I like to think I can look at these subjects realistically and hopefully with sensitivity. I would also like to add my own message of hope yet refrain giving irritating and inappropriate advice. I am mindful that these subjects touch upon all of our lives, and if it adds to any pain you are going through then please accept my apologies.
Addictions, especially alcoholism
These days, more often than not, when I visit the High Street, I usually bump into one or more of my homeless friends, as was the case this week. Also, more often than not, some, maybe many have an alcohol problem. Somehow, alcohol, which is these days readily available, is what some of these folk need in order to get them through the day with its many uncertainties and limited prospects, not least having a less than desirable place to sleep, and it is often seen as a way in which to drown their sorrows. Often people become dependent on alcohol and for many this is hard to break. Alcohol also has a numbing effect when it comes to having to face (and often avoiding) their issues and doing what needs to be done to move on.
The sadness is seeing progress followed by regress and the challenge is breaking the cycle of addiction. I speak generally, but as much I love these people and feel I can relate to and engage with them, it is with a tinge of sadness when I see these situations as too often I do. I single out alcohol addiction because that is often the main addiction issue for our homeless folk. Other people, in other circumstances, have other addictions: drug, gambling and pornography, to name three. The untoward affects are often similar.
HIV/AIDS – the new leprosy
A meeting I would have liked to attend but didn’t involved someone working locally in the field of HIV/AIDS and doing so out of painful personal experience and Christian compassion. Today, I received the minutes of that meeting and was moved, not least because there is a real issue in my own town, although we might hardly be aware given that it seems to be little spoken about, with a greater than average HIV+ affected rate, with a significant number unaware they have it and many feeling unable to speak of their condition and there being issues of denial and rejection by a community I have most affiliation with – the Christians. And how ever bigger an issue it is for the UK, it is a much bigger one in many of the less developed countries.
I recall when the issue of HIV/AIDS first hit the news and while there have been enormous changes since, including breakthroughs in cures and treatments, the tragedy remains. My own community involvement has sometimes touched on how to respond, including understanding the facts and making the links, also recognizing some of the issues like responding to the needs of those affected and the alternative approaches in the areas of prevention, i.e. safe sex as opposed to one man, one woman marital fidelity. I have pondered if HIV/AIDS is like leprosy used to be – with people avoiding those affected for fear of catching the disease and ostracizing those who are affected. The important thing to realize is that HIV/AIDS can affect anyone, including the wholly innocent: new born babies and the unwitting partners of those affected, and the need and opportunity to show practical compassion remains.
Money, especially debt
There are some who have more than enough money to meet their material needs, although whether it meets their other needs and they exercise good stewardship is another matter. There are some who have just enough money to get by, and if they had more it would be nice, but at least their financial worries are limited. While personally I am part of the majority that are in that category, I also am frustrated I don’t have enough to help out meeting the needs around me as I would like. But there are some who do not have enough money and they struggle. Sometimes that means going without, including things that are important like food. Sometimes it means incurring debt and sometimes that debt cannot be repaid.
As I read media reports and hear of specific cases of poverty and debt, I am aware that for many the issue of insufficient money or unrepayable debt is all too real and painful. While some would suggest that we don’t see real poverty in the UK (compared with the past) the truth is we do. Some of the people caught up in such situations will find it hard to share their situations, for such is their pride and this is one of the taboo subjects. Some looking on can be too ready to apportion blame, such as poor money management, and maybe with some justification. The needs are all too apparent; the wolves are hungry and the sharks are all too willing to lend money at exorbitant interest. There is often no simple solution and the need for helpers of the right kind is always there.
Mental health, especially depression
I have written already about my earlier involvement in community work around mental health and my own experiences in this area. It is never one likely to go away and at least two people close to me have shared their own struggles with depression this week. No two people are the same when it comes to recounting their experiences and the things that trigger their condition but often there are common themes, and ones I know all too well. Some of these include a low sense of personal worth, a high sense a failure and a deep sense of loss; a difficulty to be enthused about many things; the resolve to do what needs to be done; a feeling that one is not in control and feeling tempted to give up hope or stop trying.
Rather than quote from scripture or my own works, I will leave the last word, for the time being, with one who often I do not see eye to eye, but in this case I feel he is spot on. I am grateful to a friend who understands some of these things for sharing this earlier in the week. Stephen Fry said: “If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
Dementia, especially among the elderly
I read in the Sun a few days ago an article pouring scorn on the elderly who were losing their physical and mental powers. At first, I thought it was a wind up but then I realized the writer was serious in her proposals for euthanasia for such folk. I was incensed at the thought that we treat such folk with such contempt. How sad, but the reality is there to see, when we cast aside the elderly because they cannot contribute economically and as they place increasing demands on carers because of their condition. I sense that soon I may be in that category myself. As I get older I come across many who I knew as vigorous in their prime, having made remarkable contributions to the community, now a pale shadow in their dotage.
My mother died one year ago yesterday and for the last ten years of her life she suffered some form of dementia that got worse toward the end. Knowing what to do and how to handle many of the practicalities was a challenge for us and I am grateful for the support we did have. While far from perfect in these matters, myself and my family took the view that mum needed to be cared for, ideally by us but increasingly with the help of others, often involving caring professionals, and that she should enjoy a quality of life in whatever days she had left. We also came to see, as sadly the Sun writer and many others haven’t, the value of our elderly folk.
Death – it comes to us all
None of us, unless I suppose we had arranged, or it had been arranged for us, a time for our life to be taken from us, will know when that time is. Even those diagnosed with a terminal illness, such as cancer, will not know how long they have left, and sometimes it can be anything between a few days and a few years. For all of us, whether our years will be many or few, we cannot say. Too many, including those near and dear, are cut down in their prime and it could have been any one of us. Life can be so unfair and some will be angry with God (if he exists) as a result. It is easy to philosophize or come up with platitudes but the bottom line is life is short and what matters is how we spend the time we do have.
I used the opportunity of this anniversary of my mother’s death to visit her grave and while I was at it the grave of my father also, along with grand parents and an aunt and uncle. It is always difficult to know what to do on such occasions. It seems to me that these are times of quiet and somber reflection, times of hope and joy, where paying respects to those who have gone before plays an important part. Because it was a cemetery, it is difficult to avoid the inscriptions on the graves and the sense of loss of those who had died, especially when death was early. Also, and perhaps surprisingly in a society that is becoming increasingly secular, there was an understandable pre-occupation with life beyond the grave.
It would be inappropriate if I were to make judgments as to how I should speak to anyone regarding these taboo subjects. But I would seek to be sensitive and respond out of compassion, avoiding pious platitudes and the like. I see the individual pain; the situations in which people find themselves that are unique; and my own understanding that is all too limited. I would of course seek to offer words of wisdom if I were asked. The most important thing I can do is live to make a difference and do what I must to live and preach the gospel. I can pray and be a good neighbor, whatever that means. And I can always point to the message of grace and hope and be like my fictional hero, Jonathan Smith, in guiding, supporting and encouraging people coming to terms with these taboo subjects.