When Justin Welby first took office as Archbishop of Canterbury, I admired his courage in talking openly about some of the personal tragedies that have marked his life, notably the loss of his baby daughter. His story exposed as hollow and glib the modern habit of examining someone’s privilege before deciding how much sympathy and understanding we can extend to them.
I thought of Welby, and the miseries he has endured despite being a wealthy, straight, white Etonian, when I heard about the King’s cancer diagnosis. No doubt there will be those who respond to the news with a certain dismissive cynicism. You know the sort of thing: why waste your sorrow on a rich man who has never done a day’s work in his life, and will not have to tolerate the delays and indignities to which NHS cancer patients are so often subjected?
No doubt in many cases there is an admirable egalitarian impulse behind such sentiments. But if human solidarity means anything, it means not limiting our fellow feeling in that way. To be diagnosed with a serious and potentially fatal disease, and to undergo unpleasant and onerous treatments with no guarantee of final success, is a horrible thing to happen to anyone. Many of us will have to endure the same experience one day, or support loved ones who are doing so.
All of us — rich or poor, black or white, duke or dustman — will have to confront the fact of our own mortality sooner or later. One of the most striking moments during the late Queen’s funeral was when the state regalia was removed from the coffin before it was committed to the tomb. We bring nothing into this world; we can surely take nothing out, in the words of the short, powerful burial service in His Majesty’s beloved Book of Common Prayer.
Life is hard. Wealth and high status do insulate people from certain trials and tribulations. However, there remain a thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Sickness, accidents and infirmity are great levellers, and there are other shared human experiences against which money cannot reliably protect us: disappointment in love, tensions within families, the limitations imposed by our own faults and weaknesses. I am quite sure that the King, for example, knows only too well how families can be a source of unhappiness and distress.
This last point suggests another universal lesson in this story: that good can be brought out of suffering. It has been reported that Prince Harry will shortly be visiting Britain to spend time with his father. Conceivably, the stark reminder that life is short will go some way to effecting a reconciliation between the two.
John Donne’s poetic plea for human brotherhood — “Send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee” — has become a cliché. But sometimes we should lean into the truism and the platitude, because they embody great wisdom.