In true Radio 4’s Thought for the Day fashion I’m about to take a philosophical quote probably entirely out of context and twist it to my own ends.
Peppered with a few shady recollections from my very last exam at university, the one into which I smuggled a can of Banks’ Mild to open the moment I put my pen down, I hope it does the job.
It is a year to the day since my doctor turned up at my doorstep to tell me an MRI scan had found a mass on my brain. Within a few more days a brain surgeon had told me it was an inoperable and incurable tumour that will one day end my life.
With unfortunate coincidence, today I will go into hospital again. This time to prepare for the biopsy tomorrow that will most likely confirm what we suspect: that the tumour has turned malignant.
From that first confusing day to this one of calm, my family and I have had indescribable support and love from people we know, and from people we don’t.
The phone calls and texts and emails and messages, the cards and flowers, and gifts. The time given freely. The leaving of your comfort zones to speak of things that are hard to speak of. The little thoughts and gestures. The reminders that you are there.
People with brain tumours, their families, their supporters, their bereaved have written to reassure, to send information, to open their hearts, to share. Comments and messages have been left by strangers in response to the words that I have written.
Friends have called and called round. They’ve made soup and salads and casseroles. They’ve sent the kids toys. A family sent us a toaster, to make our lives a bit easier in a busy time.
People have given or raised money for brain tumour charities. They’ve swam, and run, and cycled, and shown films, and sold things. Every week brings news of a new challenge someone is taking on, in our names.
You’ve liked and shared my blog, told me my words are working. You’ve read, and listened, and been there when we’ve needed to cry, and laugh, and be angry and be thankful.
You’ve visited when you can, but understood when we’ve cancelled or not called back. You’ve done what many friends – men and women – sometimes find difficult to say to each other. You’ve said the words: ‘I love you’.
I wanted to say thank you, but the words don’t even come close. They feel like an insult. A cheap and convenient bottle of wine grabbed from the cupboard to take to a party.
I’ve worked with charities for nearly a decade to help them say the right things. But now I am stumped. I now know why their language about ‘amazing’ supporters, ‘fantastic’ donors, ‘incredible’ members and ‘valued’ volunteers grate with me so much. They are inadequate superlatives, a painfully weak attempt that is just not enough.
Those who know me well, know I’m a fan of the most colourful of language. Yet even saying: “Holy shit!, fucking great people can be fucking amazing,” still doesn’t get there.
The Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein was a strange old bloke. He was a mathematician and philosopher with a brain so full and sharp, he could sometimes barely function. It made him crazy, rude and ill tempered; he was often avoided, sometimes isolated.
But one of his central messages is something I can relate to, even though I’ve made my living through words.
Language, he said, in itself has no meaning. Words are only real and are important in so far as we use them. Like an arrow pointing to the right, we could only really understand what the arrow is getting at if we drew another arrow, or maybe pointed with our arm, in the same direction, or said: it means, go that way.
But then, what could we use to describe what we mean by that new arrow, by our pointing, or those words we use? Only more inadequate, incomplete signals and signs, each which would themselves require yet more layers of similar signals and signs.
Like with the arrow, we kind of just learn to use our language it for what it is, without trying to explain. Because the depths are too deep.
That’s why, for me, ‘thank you’ isn’t nearly enough for what people have done. It is nowhere near nuanced, or deep, or adequate, or true enough to express what I really mean.
As I lay in bed at 5am this morning, listening to the birds singing and thinking of the year gone by and the days to come, I wanted to say something I simply can’t come close to expressing.
Better to get as close as I can, and then for once just shut up and be quiet for a while.
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Ludwig Wittgenstein