A perfect storm

In passing, I was thinking about Charlotte Bronte, the English novelist and poet who once wrote in a letter, “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”

I have to disagree with what she wrote. The most caring friend seeks only to show love and sympathy. In many situations, they arrive to share your load – most, truly meaning well. However, sometimes over-sharing is the price one pays for them being by your side. When I was in hospital, I realised how the need to know, coupled with the forced intimacy of the cramped space, leads to an almost perfect storm. It is designed to breach the rules of polite conversation.

A well-meaning friend, on the way to my bed, asked a nurse: “How is Gereth doing”? This led to “Sister says your constipation is worse today” as an opening gambit – this really put me on the spot! Most of the time people just want to do something for the patient – and giving advice feels like just that. Realising that they may have messed up, the only way out is to press on. Remedies on bowel prep, or the latest quasi-science articles just glanced at, are expanded on ad infinitum. Horror stories stand up to take their place. A litany of burst bowels, botched operations and then, the knock out. “Didn’t great aunt Effie die from something like this?” What often happens when we realise we have overstepped the boundary, is that we start making things worse – words start pouring out of our mouths nineteen to the dozen.

It is not our fault we have no skills to deal with the bald facts of our gaffes when society teaches us to smooth things over. When we commit a social clanger, we are mortified! Instead of realising that the words can never be taken back, we think that a torrent of others will fix them. It never does… We tend to go on, trying to make amends with comments like “that wasn’t what I meant” or “you are not like others with this problem”. The point is that was exactly what we meant, we were just not thinking.

When I do this to someone that I love and respect, their obvious hurt makes me feel as if I’ve shot a poisoned dart straight into their heart.

Blurting something thoughtless out is human. If each word was censored or considered, the wheels of speech would grind to a halt. What would be left? This is made worse if you do not realise the impact of your words until when you are no longer with the person. When you replay your mistakes in a quiet moment, the wrong is magnified. The one person you can’t avoid is yourself.

When this happened to me, I used to flounder, splutter and cover up. Then a friend taught me how to own up to what I had said and stop making a bad situation worse by going on and on about it. She asked if I was really trying to communicate an apology, or validate my mistake. Often I was trying to diminish the impact. One of the worst things we do is to try and fix our words with platitudes. My worst is the classic – “At least it isn’t fatal” – closely followed by – “Maybe the universe didn’t want it?”  I don’t like people who speak on the universe’s behalf.

Looking back, I apologise for the times I assumed I knew what God was planning for someone. The truth is, bad things happen to good people. We all get to that place without me prodding them. I also wish I had never compared the lives of others to prove how lucky they really are. Making sweeping statements can only be done if you are the Master of the Universe and can say with certainty that all the variables of all the multiverses are under your control. I am sure if some mythical position were advertised, I would not be on the short list.

Now I stop, wait and say: “I am truly sorry for having been so oblivious to the effect my words had on you.”

To my surprise it is less difficult to accept blame for not being mindful of others than both of us trying to look away in a room full of elephants. All that it achieves is the half-truths we think out to alleviate the pain, make the truths we have said before look worthless. Most of us remember the freeing feeling when a friend sits down, lays the cards on the table, and says “I was being careless when I said that.” The hurt we cause will heal or scar or not. But it is now up to the other to choose where to go from here.

I hope like The Little Prince, my friend’s compassion for my faults are seen in the light of my intention. He says: “Here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential, is invisible to the eye.


Rev. Doctor Gereth Edwards was a practicing plastic surgeon, co-founder of the Netcare Milpark Hospital - Breast Care Centre of Excellence and the Breast Health Foundation. He then refocused his life and qualified as a minister. He writes from both a scientific and humanities view.

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