Re-printed in 2020 from its first showing in 1988, this stands proud as one of the richest reflections on living, ageing and dying one could possibly lift. It is beautifully composed by a thoroughbred prose professional. There is a problem… but more of this later.

Dr. Cassidy’s name will be familiar to those who remember the viciousness of Pinochet’s secret police, let loose to indiscriminately maim and murder in the wake of that coup. Here we learn variously of her own struggles to succeed in medicine, in the hospice movement and  –  though she may not like the language  –  in her own faith. The essentializing question herein posed is : what does it mean to age properly?

And more. Is self-imposed poverty the only state of worthiness available to the person who hates greed and exploitation? Does the medic called to care for the terminally ill have the right to claim better pay and longer leisure? More universally, how can the thinking person resolve a troubled childhood once the shadow of the ever-piling decades changes so much?  What commentary indeed can that person legitimately unfurl about the vale of tears, the suffering and the decrepitude that surrounds. How to age mightily  –  right through office politics, career setbacks, compulsive presentee-ism, lack of cash, family upheavals, useless friends and advisers, lifestyle decisions that turn out to be complete stinkers?

Naught for your comfort here. Just a slap across your chops.

It would be childish to use the word heartbreaking in relation to the stories of individuals who find their way to a hospice when their bodies are rotting but with a spirit still intact (but pride self-extinguishing). Not heartbreaking  –  because someone still has to administer care and not herself get revolted or paranoid or just sick of it all. Maybe it’s better in the end if the healer is herself “wounded”, ready to hark to the sheer farce at work inside the human tragedy, able to swim through the “tidal wave of anguish” waiting behind the cell door.  For, as is gruesomely chronicled here, there comes a certain grey day when “the carer’s hands are empty” and the blinds  –  nothing else to do or say  –   have to be drawn down.

This is not explicitly a guidebook about how to age well. But it does paint some bloody pictures of the dereliction and dependency that may come all our ways. The big message is that nothing will be gained by any clutching at pseudo-comforting (let’s call it) under-honesty and Dr. Cassidy’s narrative about her own life   –  her own failures and setbacks  – is the motivational metaphor in play. For the self-criticism here is wincing  –  with, almost like the Prince, “more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape or time to act them in”.

And, so confident in her trashing (inward and outward) she does not spare charities or religious orders. Often they are run by petty, power-fueled bullies who take sick advantage of the benevolence of volunteers and novices  –  and invariably in their tormenting go on for years unchecked. Nobody would want to go home to Dr. Cassidy with, as they say in Scotland, a broken pay. One feels sure that she has kicked a lot of tossers into the long grass over the years. And her critique of Christian exclusivisms is as informed as it is rock-hard.

However. To the bitter bit. This is a hymn about the dark  –  the persistence of random pain, freely distributed as it is to the virginal and the virtuous as well as to the cruel and the criminal. By what spiritual ethic can one explain the cacophony of human suffering which can be heard  –  you barely need to cock your ear  –  from continent to continent every single day? It does seem a contortionism to argue that all pain and all painful deaths can be offered by the pained and the dying as some kind of atonement-gift to humankind.

For no real suffering is really purifying or redemptive to anyone living or now dead  –   and to drift into the language of “His mysterious ways” (sadly on display here) is in itself totally ungodly. Taken further along the logic track, religious communities must truly want more pain, sacrifice and martyrdom in the world. But if medicine were able to eliminate all possibility of pain, that would be a good thing, no? If all believers were told that being a martyr does no good and delivers zilch to the universe , that would be a good thing, no?

Sharing the Darkness is a devastating read. There are no cushions in the study.  No sugar for the tea. But there can be little doubt that Dr. Cassidy has done a serious job of being a good person, with fantastic hands to shape the world into a better place. Of course, by her own account, the gospels have mobilized her heart.  But I personally doubt that it needed too much mobilizing in the first place.

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