My response to Robin’s question in fact took the form of one of my own, i.e. did the name Holman Hunt mean anything to him? “Wasn’t he a historical figure, a poet – or artist perhaps?” Robin inquired. I confirmed that the latter was in fact the case, prefacing such comments as I intended to make by adding, “I do not mean what I am about to say in any kind of religious or mystical way. However, you have asked the question and no doubt you want me to answer it directly and according to my own lights. Once, when a boy” I continued, “I went with my parents to London on a rare day trip. During the course of it we visited St Paul’s Cathedral. There we saw the painting, Lux Mundi, i.e. ‘The Light of the World’, by William Holman Hunt, a 19th-century artist, who had allegorically portrayed the “Christ” of life, carrying a lantern, standing – and knocking – from the outside, on a door, seemingly disused and all somewhat overgrown.”
I continued, “The thing that struck me as a child was that the door had not been given a handle by the artist and I inquired about this omission of my father, who promptly replied, ‘Well, maybe it is more likely to be on the in side’. When I come to see you, or anyone else for that matter, I have a right to knock. In fact that is what I am doing every time, from the moment I enter your room to the moment I leave it. On the other hand, that hardly gives me the right to ‘knock the door down’ and, as I perceive it, the handle happens to be on your side, if you see what I mean.” A quite animated discussion ensued and Robin expressed great interest in the painting. Indeed, since I have a modest sized print hanging in my study wall at home, I took it in for him to see.
One evening about a week later, I was about to depart from another Glasgow hospital at which I had called to see a patient, when I was informed that there was a telephone call for me. Apparently someone was asking to speak to me but seemed reluctant to leave a name. I took the call, to discover that it was Robin. Seemingly he had phoned the oncology ward, where a member of nursing staff had informed him of my expressed intention to visit the hospital in question and to return home directly from there.
A little over a half an hour later, I was with Robin in his room – just the two of us – at his home. For a while he sobbed and clung to me as, I would imagine, a terrified man might hold to the mast of the ship in a storm. His body shook as he sobbed and then, over the next couple of hours, the entire sorry story tumbled out. Robin had a close relative who was an avid devotee of Norman Vincent Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking· and not infrequently referred to and quoted from it. Knowing the book as I do, clearly this particular devotee had chosen to take a ‘slant’ on the author’s philosophy that was hardly intended and in reality, seemed nearer to a “stiff upper lip” approach. As the two of us sat in his room, Robin declared, “Do you know, it’s not so much that I have turned the handle. Rather, the door just burst open under the pressure from the inside…and I now need some help to clear up the mess.”
How many times over the years have I heard the well meaning but almost entirely vacuous advice being proffered, to “be positive”; or have had to attempt to straighten out some of the distortions, convolutions – and indeed contradictions – that the use (or rather misuse) of that phrase has occasioned? More often than not, as any rate in my experience of it, it is said – albeit sincerely – but not infrequently with ‘tongue in cheek’. It commonly lacks conviction and not infrequently spreads a kind of confusion that in some cases does unquestionably thread its way through to patients’ day-to-day sense of well being and quality of life; however, more of that in a future blog! Finally, history doesn’t record; nor does Shakespeare reveal whether Hamlet’s Polonius suffered from cancer; but if he did, in this regard he had it right: “This above all; to thine own self be true…”