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  You are @ HomeAdults True Stories

True Stories

Source: Adults

Author: Philip Roddis

Title: The buddha in the machine

Say what you like about the NHS, it's doing its damnedest to get hospital wait times down. It's eight pm on Saturday. I'm strapped to a gurney, ear-muffed and gowned as I get my final instructions – "try not to move" – before being slid into the MRI scanner for my third and least invasive set of tests for prostate cancer. In my palm is a small rubber ball. In the event I feel claustrophobic I can squeeze it to halt the scan. If I neither move nor squeeze we'll be through in forty-five minutes. After my two biopsies – dart guns up my bum firing spring loaded needles to snatch tissue samples – this will be a doddle. And since both biopsies came back negative these images of the front of the gland, where needles can't reach, may at last put me in the clear.

The muffs prove to be earphones. "The first scan starts shortly", a male voice tells me as gurney and I glide into the scanning cylinder. Silence for a minute. Then a set of clanks like the grumbling of drop hammers on childhood nights with the skyline flame red and the steam-screech, blast and bang of forge and foundry, smelting shop and rolling mill audible for miles. Like those gone forever sounds these are eerie but not unpleasant; just surprisingly mechanical. What digital age technology could so evoke the smokestack fifties? In my relaxed state I'm less interested in how it works than in why it's so physical. As the scan progresses the sounds move from rhythmic thud to high pitch whine; snaredrum swish to vocal hum; an ethereal musicality it's hard to believe not designed. Then the penny drops. It is designed. The NHS, having got Eno, Glass and Pink Floyd to collaborate, has hooked me up to a sonic drip.

This and my body's stillness induce calm. Soon I'm contemplating with an equanimity not felt in weeks the fact that, three months ago after a year of struggling to make a case for ourselves, my colleagues and I learned that our jobs as education advisors at Sheffield Hallam University will go at the end of next month. Two of us subsequently failed “attributes based” interviews for the only new posts within shouting distance. Now I’m learning what many before me have learned. Losing a job you enjoyed and relied on is like being bereaved, an emotional rollercoaster you ride as those around you look the other way.

I first stepped onto that rollercoaster aged ten when my mother took her own life. Suicide leaves a burning legacy of shame and guilt, even and perhaps especially for children, and in 1963 counselling hadn't been invented, not for the families of steel workers. Neither had the notion of closure, dad declaring a funeral no place for kids. My brothers and I were left to get on with things and that's what we did. The night it happened, I – having come in from school to discover her – had stared out on friends playing in the street. I'll never play again, I’d told myself, sure of it. Yet within a week we were playing and fighting, doing all the things we'd done before, losing ourselves and our sorrow for hours on end. Then the stark irremediality of what had happened would flood in without warning, tidal waves of despair my child mind had no defence against. These too would pass but as days became weeks, and weeks months, the cycles grew longer and more manageable. Our emotional experience, I learned early in life, may bring horror and devastation but is never fixed.

I'm aware of this truth now as I re-experience with some of the intensity of fifty years ago that inner turmoil. As before there are times of being carefree; even, and with some grounds for confidence, of looking forward to new challenges. (Asked recently to give a positive adjective for myself I first tried determined but it wouldn't fly; my past is littered with abandoned projects. I then tried resilient. Perfect.) And as before these states of wellbeing give way in the blinking of an eye to fear, a sense of failure so crushing I want to crawl under a stone, and levels of anger dangerous if acted on; toxic if denied. These too shift at the slightest trigger: a job well done ... the lift of the day's first coffee ... an email from a grateful student.

Feelings are treacherous but there's an upside. Being fifty-eight confers an advantage even as it makes the prospect of unemployment, in a period of economic contraction I don't see the UK ever fully recovering from, bleak. That advantage is a broader pers-pective on our emotions. We see the double tragedy when young people – mum was thirty-seven – take their lives. If only they'd held on, I mutter into my local paper at the latest account of some tortured teen. It would all have looked different a few months on. Whether we're nine or ninety all human emotion is experienced, and with the same intensity, but age can loosen its grip to allow distance, hence choice, in the face of difficult feelings even as we acknowledge their authenticity. To make grown up choices, though, we need a degree of inner space that has eluded me of late. After weeks of feeling trapped and helpless I now find, in a machine for clinical diagnosis whose findings may yet unleash a terror more primal than that of job loss, that space and the perspective it brings. From its vantage point I reflect, as if it were someone else's problem, on why I lose sleep to fear of unemployment while giving scarcely a thought to a cancer that kills 200 British men every week.

It’s not rocket science. Men are chancers, especially on health and safety. Until the jig is up and alternative scenarios exhausted we don't dwell on unpleasant maybes. We smoke and drink, eat badly and flout safety rules because no one can tell us for sure that these things will kill us, far less when. By contrast I know my job will end on July 31st while cancer is just a possibility. It concerned me enough to have me confide in my GP, and submit to all manner of indignity, but only once have I truly let in the worst case scenario. That was in the minutes before seeing a consultant for my first biopsy results. Sandwiched between other scared men in a crowded waiting room I was obliged for those moments to take on a truth few are willing to deeply engage: I'm not special, and have no cosmic exemption. Most of the time we're so adept at shutting out our fear of dying, we don't know we are terrified. That one encounter aside, my fear and resistance of the past months have focused not on the prospect of pain, sickness or death but on the fact my employer has no further use for my skills.

Even that's an exaggeration. Mine is a better employer than most. On August 1st I will continue to be an employee at Sheffield Hallam for a further six months. I'll go on its redeployment register and, should I apply successfully for a lower grade job in the university, my current salary will be maintained for four years. That's too generous an offer to stay on the table forever. What keeps me awake at night is the fear of finding no work during the redeployment period. An academic to my core, at a time when few sufficiently generic academic posts are coming up, I was bluntly rejected for an administrator post two grades below my own. I'm working hard to avert it but the prospect of compulsory redundancy on February 1st is real.


If emotional turbulence accompanies job loss and bereavement alike, so does the seeming indifference of those spared. The day after my mother's death we went to school. (We were asked. No alternative seemed preferable.) Mid morning the head sent for me. Offering his huge hankie he assured me my mother was now in heaven – an enlightened concession all things considered – and would be watching me 24/7 from now on. Even in my grief the idea appalled and to this day I can’t say whether he was giving solace, incentivising good behaviour or seizing the chance to do both. I dried my eyes, returned the hankie and trudged back to class; Miss Naylor the form teacher transmitting an ocean of silent sympathy as I closed the door behind me and made for the aisles. She made no direct reference to what had happened, not that or any other day, but her face said it all as thirty pairs of eyes followed me to my desk. Later I learned that my audience with the head had a dual purpose. While I was being told where mum was, so were my classmates. I doubt Miss Naylor gave much away but word spread fast. For years I'd go bright red at the word suicide, feel scalding shame as people fell silent on my approach. Some were kind, a few cruel. Most were neither; they just didn't know what to do or say. You could say my experience of bereavement has complicating factors but talk to any widow or, worse, parent who's lost a child. All have tales aplenty of avoidance gross and subtle; greater or lesser bet-rayals born not of coldness but fear ...

... and superstition. I showed an earlier draft of this essay to a colleague who made the insightful observation that "Just World Theory" might have something to do with that avoidance. JWT, say the social psychologists, is one of those 'naive' theories we unconsciously construct as the modern equivalent of fairies and goblins. Few of us have the maturity to take onboard – at gut level, not as an abstract conceit tossed around the dinner table over coffee and cognac – the fact we live in a universe where bad things like earthquakes, bombings, cancer, bereavement and being laid off can happen to anyone, including you and me. JWT, its existence established by elegantly controlled studies, is the product of our inability to come to terms with existential insecurity. It allows some reptilian corner of our brain stems to take comfort in the fiction of a morally ordered universe where if something awful happens to a person, well, they must've had it coming. (Think new age. Cancer? Your fault for being nega-tive!) A good friend of mine, the most morally driven person I've ever known and it's what makes her special, told me she wanted to feel sympathy for the 911 victims but just couldn't. Their culpability, as best I could figure, it lay in being westerners like her and on that count guilty of indifference to global suffering.

So it is with job loss and that's before we add guilt to the fear and superstition mix. Much has been written on downsizing and survivor guilt. It may seem grotesque to apply a concept from the Holocaust to so mundane an arena as workplace lay-offs but, backed up by learned studies, the new pairing has entered common parlance. I’ve had surprises both ways: small but real kindnesses from a manager many had warned me against; a patronising union rep who seemed to see her role as another tier of management. This last is a sensitive issue. When four advisors applied for the two new jobs one of us, another UCU rep, used her application to assert the value to her bosses of skills developed in union case work: so choose me, not them! I'm fond of her, she has many great traits, and which of us can be sure we'd act with dignity in this kind of balloon debate? All the same, I don't see us cracking a beer together anytime soon. (This same woman, who offers classes in critical thinking, found a novel way of having her cake and eating it in a recent one day strike we both saw as worthless posturing: "I'll say I'm working from home that day. I would never cross a picket line." I should add that I worked at home too but I'm not a union rep and I don't kid myself either: I crossed a virtual picket line that day. I can't abide sloppy thinking but sometimes, when dark descends, find myself wondering if it's now vital to academic success – that, and the right kind of UCU experience.) Meanwhile two colleagues I always found difficult sent emails of simple condolence while a third, someone I've not known long and seldom come across, looked me in the eye, asked how I was and listened when I told her. She cared enough to do that. From far corners of this huge organisation men and women I've worked with over the years have sent expressions of good will. One or two in my directorate throw looks of sympathy not overdone, not different from my teacher's look of half a century ago; silent acknowledgements that suffice. I no more want an awkward conversation than they do.

Most colleagues say or show nothing however, a fact that disappoints but does not surprise me. Of these, some avoid me altogether. Others act as though nothing has happened and all is well. One man, having secured one of the posts we'd applied for (except he didn't have to interview) and seen his salary upped, bounced into work like a puppy. "Yo!” he cried, exuding energy and insufferable bonhomie. I’ve known him for decades; he’s a thoroughly decent guy and I can't stand being around him. I would never have anticipated it, but now find I prefer avoidance to insensitivity.

I’m being unreasonable; it isn’t his fault. He wins, I lose. The decent thing is to shake hands like after the cricket match. Others neither win nor lose but are lucky enough not to have had the axe fall in their neck of the woods. Still others, fewer in number, are the architects and arbiters of change, executors of allegedly transparent processes I've yet to write about. One of several blows dealt before the interviews was being told that Yo-Man, not previously reckoned in the frame, had been granted a ‘non competitive matching’ that would further reduce the number of available posts. “So the odds just got longer for us”, I said in a phone call to a middle manager, one of a trio making the decisions. She actually laughed: not, I’m sure, in mockery; just the nervous giggle people make when – because – it’s the one response they're not supposed to give.

These are ordinary people. Even the movers and shakers, giggling or otherwise, did not create a situation where fifteen percent cuts had to be found. If they didn’t make the tough decisions someone else would, right? It's an argument hard to counter but then it's also hard not to recall the nightmares history throws up when the argument is taken to its logical conclusion and ordinary men and women go with the flow. Right now though, and for the first time in a long while, I feel under no pressure to resolve such dilemmas; to try axemen, reprieved and winners in some Nuremberg Court of my mind. There are those whose effigies I could lovingly skewer with hat pins but, while such fantasies are a natural and well documented response to my situation – which always feels personal – if dwelt on for too long they'll damage and diminish me. Seeing that, and acting on it, are two different kettles of fish but for the moment at least I've found that place where malice and fear are neither denied nor enslaving. Buddhalike in my machine, I'm free from the tyranny of wanting things other than they are.

The disembodied voice tells me we're done. The machine ejects me with the grace of a DVD tray as two young radiographers come to unstrap me. I thank them and ask if they have more patients tonight. "No, you're the last". As I leave to get dressed they move with practised efficiency into shutdown mode. The silent wards and corridors notwithstanding, it's Saturday night and life goes on. I dress, exit the main doors and walk home through the sunlit, leafy streets of Broomhill in early June. That night I get my best sleep in months. It's good to be my age and have a big perspective.


Published on writebuzz®: Adults > True Stories
 

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