Do we only see what we wish to see? Do we - unconsciously or otherwise - block out the undesirable elements of our lives and focus upon things which make us feel good - or at least do not make us feel sad or scared? I wonder - and I know in my heart that I certainly have been guilty of doing so at various points of my life - and in truth, I will probably do so again.
When I was a much younger man my greatest fear was death. I had inherited a morbid terror of the end of my life, and in particular a fear of dying from any one of the most well documented causes - with, of course, the exception of extreme old age (and even that didn't sound like something to look forward to). My method for keeping the subject at more than my own - and The Grim Reaper's - arm's length wasn't new or innovative, although it seemed to work for me. Basically, my unconscious meme convinced me that death was something that happened to everyone else, that in some magical yet undefined way I was special and as long as I didn't do anything really stupid (I wasn't at all immune from doing ordinarily stupid things) to put my life in danger, I would be OK. Even that "OK", however, was a generic, vague statement; the mere suggestion that I would be safe from death had about it the ring of tempting fate (or a higher purpose for me), and I didn't want to go there! I just didn't want to think about dying.
The result was that the subject of death rarely entered my conversation, even though in a professional capacity I frequently came face to face with it in many circumstances, from the horrifically traumatic to the comfortingly peaceful. Indeed, perhaps because I sometimes dealt with the deaths of others, the idea of it always being someone else's problem became cemented in my mind. The foolishness of the young was alive and well within me.
At that time (almost twenty five years ago) the concept of hospice was just beginning to enter the public consciousness in my home country of England. I was aware of the idea, and of the existence of a pioneering facility within my work area (if you haven't already guessed, I was a British 'Bobby'), but nothing in my life at that time, not even the knowledge that my parents were entering the final third of a typical life span, inspired me to think on the subject in any way other than fleetingly, and even then only to quickly - and deliberately - steer my thoughts away to happier things.
I passed the hospice many times each working day, but the thought of dropping in (as we were encouraged to do in order to foster community ties), if it ever entered my head, flew out just as quickly. Until...one night, working with a much older (and wiser) officer, the matter was taken out of my hands as we pulled our patrol car into the grounds of a surprisingly modern-looking building for the express purpose of sampling the nurses' tea-making prowess. I had never even set eyes upon the hospice building before - a result of my reluctance to acknowledge its presence - and now I was confronted with it. My suppressed fears about death, sickness and hospitals rushed out of the dark recesses of my mind to the very front and made themselves known. My mouth became dry, I began sweating a little as the adrenalin kicked in and a slight - but definite - tremor took hold of my body.
I made no protest as we walked towards and through the rather fine entrance doors (to do so would have seemed less than manly, after all), but I was braced for a depressing scene of suffering, sadness and sorrow.
What greeted me instead was a warm, bright lobby which immediately led into what I still remember today as a place of wonder. Knowing the reason for the existence of the hospice and its daily work, the experience of stepping into a truly beautiful living space, one wall entirely made of glass and looking onto a marvelous greened courtyard, was genuinely amazing. My mouth quite literally gaped as my eyes were opened onto a place of wonder which above all exuded love and caring as well as an atmosphere - incredibly to me at that time - of happiness and peace. It was 3 o'clock in the morning, and almost everybody was wide awake.
I blinked, confused and looked around in something of a daze. From where I stood I could see into several rooms, each of which, although clearly functional and professionally equipped, had more of a feel of a homely bedroom than a hospital room. One or two faces were turned towards me, and one lady sat up in her bed, a book in her hands. Each of the faces - miraculously, it seemed to me - broke into a smile, and I found myself unable to resist waving and smiling in return. I felt myself being changed in those moments - changed by those people, knowing that their twilight was upon them, generously giving of themselves within such a wonderful environment. I felt suddenly, with goosebumps covering my skin, that this was not, as I had assumed, a place of death; it was instead quite the opposite - a place where people did some very high quality, very real and very important living.
Within the next thirty minutes I met some enchanting people, both carers and the cared-for. I met people with an amazing passion for caring (in every sense) for other human beings; people for whom making another person's final few months, weeks or days the best that they could possibly be, was as important as breathing. I found myself deeply moved by their depth of professionalism, by their love of their fellow humans. In addition, I also had the privilege of meeting several people whom I was ultimately saddened to never see again; people for whom every moment was precious, every spoken word, every conversation, so much more meaningful than I had ever been aware of. These people were really living every moment., perhaps living more intensely than ever before.
They were special, every one of them - special not only because of their calm, peaceful outlook on their unique situation but also because of the gift they were able to give to me, an ordinary young man, having his eyes gently but definitely opened about the true meaning of the well-worn phrase; 'quality of life'. Too soon, we had to leave that amazing environment behind, but I know - I knew then - that I left it a changed man. I returned there when I could in the ensuing years (and never found it any less wonderful) although a relocation soon made it impossible to continue, but I have returned there regularly in my heart ever since.
Hospice is a concept every bit as important to society's attitude towards human life as the concept of medically supported birth - it's simply that fundamental. The idea that as a species we should not do everything we can to make the end of life experiences of our neighbours, our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers as comfortable and at peace as we possibly can, seems a very strange one. The structure of our society currently requires that hospices are almost entirely funded by charitable donations, but hopefully that will one day change and we will be able to properly finance, with public money, facilities which offer a truly amazing caring experience for the ailing, their loved ones and friends.
This is what hospices do at the moment - somehow. Filled with special people - caring, loving individuals working as caring, loving teams, they provide incredible levels of flexible (the rule seems to be that there are no rules!), tolerant, enabling and empowering care for us all, whether we face death ourselves or face losing a loved one. They are places of living where life is celebrated in the tiny things as well as the large (and I maintain that the tiny things in life are so often the most important), where life is enjoyed as much as possible and where our loved ones are allowed to leave the world with dignity, surrounded by love and care at all times. They are places of nurturing, of nourishment and of contentment. Such important places deserve not to be in the shadows of our collective consciousness but celebrated in our communities for the amazing, incredibly important service they promise and deliver.
They are invisible rainbows: because we do not - or choose not to - see them, we cannot properly appreciate them. Only when we stop looking the other way and we open our eyes to the hospices and what they achieve will we be able to appreciate their true colours; their true worth and their importance to each of us and to our society. If we allow them to, they will touch all our lives in immensely positive ways. I hope that as a society we can open our eyes and our hearts to these transformational organisations within our communities.
Let's notice those rainbows.