The things that endure

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It’s become my practice to cast a look back and try to find a common theme or thread that links the events of the past week. It’s not an easy exercise, but I do it because it forces me to think things through, helps me make sense of what bewilders me, or remember moments that otherwise just get lost in the shuffle of time. And often, I do manage to come up with a few thoughts that are coherent enough to share with others.

This week, though, it’s been particularly difficult to make sense of anything at all.

Last Friday the super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda hit the Philippines, wreaking unprecedented havoc in my already hobbled home country. Over 10,000 dead. 1.9 million people homeless. My heart aches, but at the same time it’s warmed by all the stories of so many people doing whatever they can to help. It seems that the whole world has converged on the Philippines. Even my friend’s husband Mark, a telecom engineer based in Montreal, will be flying over after Christmas, to look after the communications system of the UN clusters deployed to offer humanitarian aid in this latest disaster.

They have a little boy who’ll be turning a year old soon. When you have a small child, to be absent from his life for even just one day, is to miss out on a lot. Mark will be in the Philippines for a month. So I thank him, in advance and on behalf of Filipinos, for spending this precious time away from his family, and for the good work he will do.

***

Suffering. I guess that could be the theme for this week. On Thursday I attended a lecture given by Dr. Cheryl Kinney, a female gynaecologist with a literary bent, on women’s health care in the time of Jane Austen. Dr. Kinney also discussed how Jane Austen used illness in her female characters to drive her plots, and how she inserted commentaries on the medical profession into her novels, especially in Persuasion.

It was a unique angle from which to view these well-beloved novels, although some of the descriptions of the medical procedures were pretty horrific. “In the history of humanity as written, the saddest part concerns the treatment of women,” wrote the 19th-century philosopher Herbert Spencer. This was made graphically clear during Dr. Kinney’s lecture: mastectomies without anaesthesia, one out of ten mothers dying from childbirth, wanton blood-letting as a cure-all, not to mention women’s complete lack of say in their own medical treatment…the good doctor had grown men audibly wincing.

So it was all the more amazing that the whole thing ended on an uplifting note, as will this post.

As barbaric as these treatments might seem to us, said Dr. Kinney, one can only imagine what doctors will be saying 200 hundred years from now about the practice of medicine in our own times. Neither suffering nor the technology designed to relieve it, will stand the test of time. In the end, beauty and truth, generosity and courage—such as can be found in the novels of Jane Austen and, I daresay, in the hearts of good people everywhere—are the things that endure.

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