Miriam Fine-Goulden: We can do this—I have faith in us

When I was 18, I went to Poland to visit the site of the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. Nothing could prepare me for the utter horror of coming face to face with evidence of the human suffering and slaughter wrought on that scale; it is an experience that will stay with me forever. And yet, when I left, expecting to feel nothing but misery and despair, I was surprised that my most persistent emotions were of hope, optimism and faithfaith in humanity and in the power of human resilience. While it is true that this was an example of the ability of huge numbers people to perpetrate unspeakable acts of brutality, it is also an opportunity to marvel at the strength and endurance of countless others.  

In her incredible book The Choice, Edith Eger, Holocaust survivor and psychologist, notes that “suffering is inevitable and universal, but how we respond to suffering differs”, and reminds us that “we have a choice: to pay attention to what we’ve lost or to pay attention to what we still have.”

One of the memes currently circulating is the gently mocking, “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on your couch. You can do this!” The implication, of course, is that the distress and misery we may be experiencing is nothing compared with the true deprivation and terror suffered by those of previous generations. But pain and anguish are still deeply felt, no matter how “justified” they are judged to be. Edith Eger herself insists, “I don’t want you to hear my story and say, ‘My own suffering is less significant.’ I want you to hear my story and say, ‘if she can do it, then so can I!'”

Despite all of the restrictions placed on our personal lives, the huge pressures, demands, and uncertainties we face in our professional lives and the worries we have about caring for our loved ones, many of us are not just surviving but thriving. Clinicians, managers, support staff and contractors throughout the NHS and beyond have been re-training, up-skilling, collaborating and working in ways they never thought possible. Expansion projects that seemed to have no hope of reaching fruition have been completed, miraculously, in days. Whole wards, units and departments have moved en masse and previously condemned spaces rendered functional and productive. Laboratories are working around the clock, production capacity of vital equipment has been mobilised extensively, the government and health service have been stepping up to an unprecedented degree and there are examples of astonishing acts of kindness, compassion and generosity being offered throughout the country.

Of course there are huge numbers of people experiencing tremendous hardship, to the extent that those of us with safe and comfortable living arrangements and the means to stockpile a month’s worth of food could never fully appreciate. And of course there are huge numbers of people sick, hospitalised and dying. It is not entirely true that we are #AllInThisTogether since many are left behind. Whilst you may feel your suffering is less significant or justifiable than those of others, you are no doubt feeling it to some extent.  But I have faith in us. Edith Eger reminds us that “Suffering is universal, victimhood is optional.” We are being victimised by the covid-19 pandemic, but we need not be victims. We are resilient and we have reserves of strength we never appreciated. We in the NHS are doing amazing things and the whole of society is supporting us with all their might.  

George Bernard Shaw suggested that, “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society.  The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.” At the moment we need all of the aeroplanes and all of the parachutes we can muster.  

There is no doubt that things are bad. They may yet get worse. But we can do this.  We already are.   

Miriam Fine-Goulden is a consultant in Paediatric Intensive Care at the Evelina London Children’s Hospital and South Thames Retrieval Service, Guys & St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, and also works for NHS England Specialised Services. She tweets @finegoulden

Competing interests: None declared.