I did, in fact (it now seem an age ago) make reference in my series of blogs on coping with serious and life-threatening illnesses, to a time of just such an illness during my undergraduate days. One day, after some three years of, for the most part, non-surgical management, I was visited on the hospital ward, by my consultant surgeon. He came swiftly to the point, advising me that major surgery was now needing to be performed without further delay. There were a number of very valid reasons why I should feel uneasy and uncertain about the right way forward at that time (nearly sixty years ago) which I need not relate here, save to say that it was, as I remember it, a difficult time to negotiate.
Then late in the evening of that same day, I received a visit from an old university mentor, who although in his eightieth year, was still engaged and apparently as enthusiastic as ever in his academic and teaching activities. What he said to me, as I recall, went something like this. “Look laddie” (that was his customary mode of address, delivered in a gruff and inimitable Aberdeenshire dialect). “All the hackneyed old sayings about, “being in good hands” do unquestionably apply to you in this place. Theirs is the best and only treatment you need from the ‘outside in’ and should you need more or different, then God willing, He will provide. “But dinnae (don’t) think that that’s an end tae (to) it”. Pausing for a moment he (again, in his inimitable way of quite suddenly ‘firing’ a question) enquired, “Have you ever come across the phrase, “Gnothi sauton?” In fact, I had and knew it to be the admonition inscribed on the temple of the oracle of Apollo at ancient Delphi, “Man know thyself”. He continued, “What happens from the ‘outside in’, if you get my meaning, is largely up to your hospital doctors. But how you cope from the ‘inside out’ is largely up to you and if you can take control of it and manage it (where had I heard that before?) then” – and I have never forgotten his words to this day – “Dae (do) that and you’ll no’ (not) only manage laddie…ye’ll (you will) triumph”, I sae, (say) ye’ll triumph! How at that moment I needed to receive such an assurance from someone who I had had good reason to trust and even revere? I resolved again that evening to learn all that I could about that same on-board coping resource.
“Man, know thyself”, has of course passed into the annals of history. Yet how can we even partially fulfill what is entailed in that ancient dictum, unless we begin to take at least a measure of personal responsibility for the ordering and discharge of the power whereby it might be fulfilled. I still remember with what interest and fascination, I once read of how Thomas Huxley, (grandfather of the even more illustrious Aldous and Julian) had claimed that every year, there lies beneath the soil of Britain a bewildering array of seeds and the like, brought from tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world by winds, birds and other transporting agencies. “There”, Huxley asserted, “they lie year by year, simply waiting for a tropical atmosphere, which would cause our countryside and gardens to bloom with unsurpassed tropical luxuriance”. It is said that when Bertrand Russell, a contemporary of Thomas Huxley’s heard of it, he commented, “Huxley reminds us that the awareness of real potential, whatever the chances of fruition, is the stuff of true adventure and potential growth.(C)SB.