Getting a grip on reality is a thing many people currently seem to be struggling with. It is tempting to think that if the 2.3 billion Christians, 1.8 billion Muslims and 1.1 billion Hindus could make the same journey I made and grasp that their convictions are nothing but ancient dreams, the problem would be sorted but I doubt it.
I was born in 1960 in a council house in Denholm in the Borders. My mother recalled it was with the help of a 'handywoman' who on this occasion played midwife, her other professional skill being to 'dress' the recently deceased. At six months, while changing a nappy, my mum discovered a lump on my right thigh and as it hadn't gone after days she took me to the local doctor who sent me up to Edinburgh Royal Hospital for Sick Children. A consultant diagnosed a malignant tumour and said that without intervention I would die. After some clumsy surgery and experimental radiotherapy, I nearly did.
Any parent can imagine the distress and my father, having been told at one visit he was best to go home and wait for the call, took a diversion into St Patrick's Church in the Cowgate where he found a leaflet about Margaret Sinclair, an Edinburgh nun who died in 1927. Local Catholics thought she would be declared a saint if some miraculous cures could be attributed to her. He prayed to Margaret for her 'intercession' and on the train home said he felt overcome, overwhelmed by a sudden sense of peace accompanied by a conviction that everything was going to be just fine. In my child's mind, this was the moment a miracle occurred. When called to the phone the next day it seems he had sobered up as he assumed this was the call to tell him I was dead. In fact, I had made a miraculous recovery.
This was the story I grew up with. It made me feel very special, rather than simply disabled, and I believed I was a miracle throughout my childhood. I still have a photograph of me being presented to the Queen Mother on a visit to the hospital in my very own black and white version of the Adoration of the Magi. But was it true?
My right leg failed to grow properly and each year one shoe required a higher and higher raise until it became like one of Herman Munster's platform boots. By nine, my right leg was three inches shorter than my left and consultants decided it was time for a less miraculous intervention.
The moment I woke after the first operation remains, even now at 60, the most shocking of my life. I found myself in a plaster bed, a cast of my own body raised on a giant metal frame. There was a machine on my leg with two surgical pins running through my tibia, two just above my knee and most horrifically two running anterior to posterior through my upper right femur, exiting a few inches from my anus. I remember feeling this machine with my fingers as consciousness returned, feeling the pins coming out of my backside, finding it horrifically incomprehensible. My femur was snapped so the pins could be slowly pulled apart to stretch my leg. The whole apparatus was suspended by pulleys giving the effect of being trapped in a web of steel pins and cord.
I had no idea this could be done to a human body and no idea it was going to be done to mine. The only person I heard of having pins passing right through their flesh and bones was Jesus Christ, and yes, knowing that did help. Richard Dawkins' Monty Python-like mocking of the crucifixion in the God Delusion
fails entirely to capture the meaning of it to those in real suffering. I was violently sick from shock for days. I had three leg lengthenings in all, though none as barbaric as the first, making then a world record of nine inches. These days, people born with genetically diminutive stature sometimes have four lengthenings on each leg making them a foot taller. God help them.
My mother was perhaps more inclined to science than my father. She seemed to go along with the miracle but had a scientific explanation for the cause of my alleged cancer which she thought to be strontium-90, an element named after Strontian on the west coast of Scotland where it was discovered in a lead mine. Strontium-90 is one of many radioactive by-products thrown into the atmosphere during the testing of atomic weapons. Chemically, it behaves like calcium and so becomes concentrated in the bones of growing children. Mothers on 'Ban the Bomb' marches, the equivalent of Extinction Rebellion now, carried placards about strontium-90 which no doubt she read.
It so happened that at the very time in my life when I began to seriously question the truth about what had happened to me – 30-something – I was slow to confront it. I had a job lecturing in physics and was invited to bring my students to a talk delivered by the father of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, at Heriot-Watt University. At the end of an hour-long rambling chain of thought mostly spent trying to convince the audience that the weapon he developed had forever ended the prospect of another world war, Teller was left sat alone on the stage while various VIPs lined up to speak to him – a bit like an audience with the Pope.
The VIPs, the only one I recognised was Tam Dalyell, stood at the foot of a stair to the left while a similar stair to the right had no-one waiting. I suddenly realised I had my chance to find out some part of the truth and quickly hobbled up it and took a seat next to him.
With an alarmed usher approaching, I began without hesitation. 'My mother thought that the cancer I had as a child was caused by the testing of nuclear weapons,' with my tone and appearance clearly saying, 'Look what you have done to me'.
The alarmed usher couldn't say a word before Teller raised his hand dismissing him in his famous Dr Strangelove voice: 'Can't you zee I am talking to someone?' Turning to me, he asked with genuine human concern: 'Where were you born?'
'In Scotland. In the borders,' I replied.
'When were you born?'
'May 1960.' A pause.
'The nearest tests to you were in North Africa.'
He knew his bomb tests well and I was surprised as I did not know that the French had detonated an atom bomb in Algeria on 13 February 1960. Teller shook his head. 'The chances of your cancer being caused by that would be one in a million,' and to emphasise his conviction and conclude our conversation, he repeated in that voice exaggerated by Peter Sellers, 'One in a million'.
So what was the truth? What happened to me? No-one wants to uncover uncomfortable truths, but I finally plucked up the courage to write to the hospital I spent a fair chunk of my childhood in – the soon to close Princess Margaret Rose Orthopaedic Hospital, and asked for my medical records. Like the picture of the Queen Mother, I still have the letter saying my records had been destroyed as I had not attended the hospital for some years. Untrue in fact, as I visited almost annually to have my shoe adapted.
At my GP's surgery, I unearthed a handful of letters dating back to that time, photocopied with great reluctance. One dated 22 September 1960 to Dr P N Paterson Brown from F H Roberts about the 'tumour' reads: '...the mother has only recently noticed it and cannot say whether it is increasing in size. She herself thought it was in relation to a wasp sting'. Another, from 12 January 1961, suggested some experimentation was going on, saying it was: '...encouraging to see that the inter-pelvic portion, which had been left partly by reason of its inaccessibility by operation and partly as an indicator of the efficacy or otherwise of the radiotherapy, has entirely disappeared'. All smacked of complacency and the reference to the wasp sting and lack of any positive biopsy left me with little doubt. I was not a miracle and most likely a victim of medical incompetence.
I never told my mother I had obtained these letters, nor did I mention the meeting with Edward Teller. I continued to take her year after year to the annual Margaret Sinclair gatherings at Mount Vernon cemetery often bumping into Joseph, a man who presumably was also miraculously saved but left with brain damage, always wearing a wry smile, his clear voice quick to make some gentle joke but never remembering me, nor much else, from one year to the next.
It is a difficult thing that there are truths we cannot know but they are all around us. It was fortunate at the time that my partner was a person-centred therapist, a slightly ridiculed branch of psychotherapy, the joke being that the practice involved little more than saying back to the client the thing the client had just said. 'I don't think my cat loves me.' 'Ah, so what you are saying is that you don't think your cat loves you?' The person-centred view is that what we all think of as reality is in part a reflection of ourselves. The sociopath will shout 'Nobody cares!' They believe it because for them it is true. We see the world like a reflection in a Christmas tree bauble, a reflection overlaid with a distorted image of ourselves.
Prejudice, a distortion of reality, is not just racial or sexist or disablist, it is multitudinous in its manifestations and anyone who thinks they are immune fails to understand the nature of themselves. A person might go on a march against prejudice but when they overhear a prejudiced remark at a supermarket checkout or pick-up that a person in their immediate environment is possibly being bullied, accepting the truth and acting on it is often too hard to do. Just as the truth was probably too hard for my parents. We adjust our view of reality to dismiss inconvenient truths. Religion is not the cause of delusion, it is a symptom of a human propensity. There seems now to be strong evidence that even those who have turned from religion to science remain just as vulnerable to deluded convictions.
Many people have a similar struggle to know some truth about themselves. Perhaps late in life they discover they have been adopted or stumble on some similarly challenging thing. The uncertainty runs the other way too. Others do not know us either.
'To see oursels as ithers see us!' That line, so often quoted at this time of year, has contrary interpretations. A common one being that others can see us for what we are – some simple solid single thing, perhaps just not quite the thing we think we are. The reality is that every other viewer sees a quite different version of us. To see ourselves as others see us would be to see a muddled chaotic kaleidoscopic view and far from saving us from 'many a blunder' might equally lead us into many more or even madness.
Some years ago, an elderly neighbour with whom I shared a garden asked me into her house for a chat. She wanted to complain about the time I had stood by her plum tree and said to her: 'This is my plum tree'. I was taken aback as no such thing had ever happened but it was alarming and disorientating to listen to. 'That never happened,' I said as gently as I could. 'It must have been a dream.' She flew into a rage insisting that it had indeed happened. As politely as I could, I retreated out of the house but was left worrying what if she had told this story to others? Would they believe that I was such a monster as to try to steal a plum tree from an old lady?
She was quite an old lady at that. As a teenager she had escaped from the siege of Konigsberg by ship, leaving her mother to be imprisoned by the Russians, got herself to a demolished Berlin and lived by stealing fruit and vegetables from the gardens of the great manor houses around Wannsee. Perhaps then someone had actually stopped her and said: 'This plum tree belongs to me'. Her stories got worse but years later our friendship was restored and these ghost events were as mysteriously forgotten as they were mysteriously misremembered.
I trusted my neighbours to be able to judge the truth but how do any of us do that? On my right foot I still wear a big shoe like a movie monster and oddly that might be enough for some to believe that maybe I am one. Prejudice is the other half of the recipe used to create accepted truth out of pure fiction. Take an unlikely theory that some want others to believe, mix in the prejudice and out of the oven comes alternative truth. The former President of the United States has been using that recipe for years and he is not the first or last political leader to do so.
We are familiar with truth confusion when it comes to the elderly but less inclined to think that it applies to people of any age. It does. We are each as susceptible as the elderly or the religious to believing things that are just not right. Jeremy Corbyn was accused of not maturing his convictions from the time he was a student but he is not the only one.
Most party leaders of whatever party get involved in politics at university and then go on apparently believing the same thing decade after decade as they climb the party ladder, every one like a cyclops with a single eye set on some single vision. Are they not also confused? Can they really not see the other view? Have they plucked one eye out or have they learned that to even admit to considering a view contrary to the one they sell will end their career? Political movements have a great deal in common with religious communities. They are communities of shared belief with the same rituals and ranks and promises of miracles. We are easily deluded people following easily deluded leaders.
How can we deal with the current pandemic of delusion and alternative truths? We can jump up and shout 'Lies and falsehoods!' but the problem with that is that the adherents of the unlikely theories also jump up and say just the same thing about the truth, often shouting the loudest. The uninformed listener does not know what to make of it.
The solution, if there is one, must be something to do with that person-centred theory, recognising and compensating for our own reflection which is forever superimposed upon our Christmas tree bauble view of the world. Often we cannot know for sure which view is correct and so they must be held one in each hand and gently weighed up. Sometimes we must accept that we do not quite know which is the heaviest and most certainly should not be telling others what to believe when it is really best they decide for themselves. Going on social media to repeatedly promote a personal conviction is probably a bad idea.
When my mother was taken into Monklands General Hospital a week before she died, my brother and I were with her when a priest came to give her the Sacrament of the Sick. I asked her: 'Would you like us to leave so Father can hear your confession?' With admirable confidence, she said: 'Why? I have not committed any sins'. And then, turning to the priest with a strange apologetic humour, said: 'John is a miracle Father, or at least I think he is. But… who knows? Maybe it was just a wasp sting'. The priest looked a little bemused. I'm not sure how I looked. This was a possibility she had never mentioned to me in my entire life and it was probably better that she hadn't. It was perhaps the bravest of confessions. Did she know I already knew? I'll never know.
John McGrath is a retired teacher of Physics and Maths who lives with his partner and daughter in Portobello