A COWARD’S BRIEF ENCOUNTER
by Anton Wills-Eve
to tag or not to tag, that has almost nothing to do with this question
A COWARD’S BRIEF ENCOUNTER
This earthly life in which I spend all my time is not even a drop in the ocean of eternity. So how can I measure the tidal rise and fall of Heaven’s boundaries due to my existence if it has neither physical nor temporal limits? This question is what theologians call a supernatural mystery, atheists call a cop out, and people like me, who love God, his saints and his sinners, are happy not to call anything at all. I give my existence no name, I just live it. But what fun to be asked to give it a tagline, particularly if I have I to be honest as well! You can see what I have chosen; would you like to know why?
For me the most important quality a man should have, and one which I lack in so many different ways, is courage. Courage to do what I instinctively know I ought to do no matter how difficult, apparently painful or mentally depressing. But why should I impose such conduct upon myself when I have freewill and do not need to display valour whenever it is called for? Quite simply because when others are in need, and by being courageous I could help them, then I would not think much of myself if I just ignored them. This is no attempt to be holier than thou or the saviour of my nation or the rescuer of my loved ones. No it is nothing like that. It is trying to find the guts to live with myself when I know what a basically selfish bastard I so often am. I look for excuses, but there are none. Reasons, oh yes there are always reasons for not facing up to fear for the sake of others when one should, but excuses? I don’t think so. I want to be explicit here.
In many blogs I have discussed an illness from which I have suffered all my life. It crucifies me and I hate it, yet I still blame myself for not having overcome it. No, I merely find devious, dishonest and dangerous ways round it and above all use it as my excuse for being what I have called myself, a coward. In case you haven’t the faintest idea what I am getting at let me explain that I have suffered from a terrible anxiety neurosis for as much of my life as I can remember. It takes the form of a phobic panic when confronted by nothing at all. Open spaces with nobody in them; oceans, I cannot swim; streets of closed shops from which I cannot escape and worst of all crowded stadiums and public meetings in which I cannot find any way out from the irrational fear of not being able to control my movements. This in turn reduces me to breathless, perspiring fits of a feeling I can’t describe, only the way the symptoms torture me. I invariably try to run away, anywhere, until exhausted I either reach a sanctuary or quite simply faint and am helped by some kind passer by. But earlier I referred to the ways I get round this awful phobia. I call my method of defnding my sanity, “The three P’s”
Briefly this is an acronym for Pills, Prayers and Pernod. For the past 48 years I have been on a daily dose of benzodiazapine tranquilisers which would knock most people out if they took only ten per cent of the dose I need. The prayers I say every day and night are a mixture of begging God and one saint in particular to release me from the daily prospect of being reduced to a frightened mental wreck. But I also know that I don’t deserve to be spared this ordeal and they help me accept this, and even cheer me up when I am at my lowest ebb. And the final P? well if you drink a bottle of Pernod a day it does help keep you full of false courage, at least enough to struggle through the horrors that confront you. But if I really am this ill why do I call myself a coward?
Cowardice is the failure to do what we should because the prospect scares us in some way, I have said this before. But in the case of an irrational fear it follows that I should be able to face up to the stupidity of my nonsensical phobia and behave like everyone else. Like a normal person. But for some reason I can’t. Why can I not walk by myself to the end of the street in which I live when it is only some eighty yards away? I don’t know. I can do it if I have someone, my wife for instance, to hang onto who knows what I am suffering and can help me. But even this does not always work. And why have I had it all my life? It has stopped me doing many, many things I enjoy so it is not some subconcious way of getting out of things I don’t want to do. I had to give up golf and cricket before I was eighteen because the fields and courses were simply unmanageable. Heavens know what the masters at my school would have done if they had known I was drinking half a bottle of scotch immediately before a match when playing cricket for the school, and this at the age of thirteen! But illnesses such as mine make you behave in some very odd ways. I loved travelling and my career as a journalist, especially as a war correspondent, but the company never knew what I was fighting. It was never a part of the war I was there to observe. No My pills, prayers and Pernod kept me going for three years and more in Vietnam and Cambodia when I could hardly cross the road in some places. It was also an expensive way to live. I mean I had to take taxis everywhere I went, but I never told anybody. I loved my work too much.
But there is a limit to how long one can keep this up. I was warned by a doctor whom I consulted in London at considerable expense why no cure for my illness was known. He said it was but depended on the patient. In my case he told me I had settled for living with it and handling it as best I could, and I was either deliberately or subconsciously refusing to let other people, doctors especially, interfere in how I treated myself. I told him I did not agree with him, told him I would never wish the illness on my worst enemy and that in short he was the one who had made up his mind about what could or could not be done for me and refused to take any notice of me at all. That is where we left it. But at what cost?
Firstly at the cost of the happiness of at least four people who suffered terribly from being excluded from my life, and by me too. That hurt. It really did. I have never forgiven myself for what I did to them and I never will, but was I being a coward? I thought so at the time, but I also had a reason in each case for doing what I did. A girl I had wanted to marry for 16 years, since she was nine, I finally had to tell I could not see again. Why? She thought it was because I didn’t love her. I thought it was because to inflict someone with my illness on her for the rest of her life would have been downright cruel. I would have been spending half my income on just paying for ways round my phobia instead of looking after any family we so dreadfully wanted to have. That was cowardice, or was it? Without going into details I can say now, 41 years after I last saw her, that her life would have been far, far happier if we had stayed together. We still keep in touch. But anyone who hurt someone like I hurt her deserves to end up as I have. The others were less dramatic partings, but severed ties of love and affection that I still dream about in nightmares you couldn’t think up. I got what I deserved with one exception. I fell in love with my wife of forty years now and have loved her for every minute of our marriage.
But read the tag again. I may have explained the ‘coward’ part but why would I tag my life a brief encounter? Simply this. All our lives, whatever we believe, are incredibly brief while on earth. But if we are then loved by God for ever, and in a paradise that we cannot even start to imagine, we are not just fortunate but also know we are eternally loved. So you see I would tag my life on earth as I have, and for the reasons I have, but the next life is one I could never, never tag. Why? Well if I ended up seeing again all those people I hurt, I would also see them happy. I would be so overjoyed I would not know how to describe God’s ultimate gift to me as he forgave me. It is worth going through the hell I have seen for that, though while others on earth still suffer because of me I can only accept the price of my awful pain and terrible illnesss. Maybe that is why ‘a coward’s brief encounter’ was actually necessary in my case. But, as I was not the one who gave me my phobia in the first place, I’m afraid that doctor was completely and utterly wrong!