When Ignorance Is Bliss - by Dr. Jane Nannono Kavuma

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When Ignorance Is Bliss -  by Dr. Jane Nannono Kavuma

I know if you are now reading this you must be disagreeing with. Take heart, we are both on the same side: ignorance is not bliss. But for some flitting moments when life throws you the unexpected in your path, not knowing what is likely to happen and when it can happen can be bliss.


My youngest sister had battled cancer of the breast for about six years; had developed a strong will to live but three months ago, sadly, she succumbed to the monster while I sat faithfully by her bed side.

She was a fierce warrior deserving to be presented with feathers of the Blue crane if she was a member of the Xhosa tribe of South Africa.


The doctors had from time to time prepared her and the family for the final eventuality- death from the complications, but when it came, it hit us like a ton of bricks. It will take a while for my frail octogenarian mother and us the siblings and grandchildren to come to terms with the loss.


In the last four weeks of her life, I found myself many times thinking that Ignorance was bliss. While writing up this post I had to do some research about the meaning of this idiom.


The idiom originates from Thomas Gray’s (1716-1771) poem entitled Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1747). It is a ten stanza poem each with ten lines. The last line of this poem says:

And happiness swiftly flies.

Thought would destroy their paradise.

No more; where ignorance is bliss,

‘Tis folly to be wise.


During those last three weeks, complications arose one after the other, all pointing to the final outcome. I myself, a medical doctor for nearly forty years, was the patient’s attendant and knowing the facts I knew turned into a heavy burden to me. In such moments, I found myself wishing that I did not know as much as I did about the condition and state of the patient. Not knowing what was likely to happen and when it could happen would have been bliss to me. Many times, I wished that I knew the basics just like my mother and other members of the family.


It is said that “What you do not know cannot hurt you.’’ On a scale of one to ten, I scored 9 for being terribly worried and frightened just because I knew too much and yet all my relatives depended on me. My mother and siblings could have scored five. No doubt they knew the end was near and were concerned. The medical doctor–turned attendant was in emotional turmoil. For the last two days, I was in total dread and despair and naturally I started panicking.


Knowledge is power and in this situation, I should have used it to make better-informed decisions. On the contrary, for some moments it was causing me untold pain and suffering. I had tried my best to prepare myself, my mother and siblings for the inevitable but I had to spare them so much pain that I ended up shouldering it alone. Had it not been for the daily discussion I was having with the medical team I could have been weighed down.


My sister kept telling herself: “When I get better, I’ll do this and that……….” How could I have punctured her inflated balloon or burst her soap bubble, though all along we had been expecting it? How do you tell an old mother watching over her youngest child that this is it?  How could I best strike a balance between giving hope and telling the truth gently without inflicting more pain and hurt?


I had read and seen many patients with the same condition on the wards and in the post mortem room. I could even imagine how the organs looked like as the cancer spread to them. Much as I wished that I knew much less, I had no way of getting rid of the facts I knew. At that moment in time I was four persons in one: a human being with strengths and flaws, a daughter, a sister turned attendant and a doctor with a wealth of knowledge and experience. The four boundaries were blurred and finally the human being took control of the reigns. Since I had no power to prevent the final blow, I resigned to Divine will.


It is said: “Blessed are the flexible, they will not be bent out of shape.” And George Irving said: “Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them.’’


So in the end I looked for something good out of this experience. After all what does not kill you makes you strong. I started hoping for the best while I prepared for the worst. I also pledged to be kinder, compassionate to all the patients I touch and their attendants knowing very well that each of them is fighting an inner battle.


What actually Thomas Gray had meant by saying that ignorance was bliss was that misfortunes come to all of us in good time and that the young should be left to live in their innocence- paradise until they are strong enough to bear the burden. I would probably admit that at my age, I was mature and strong enough to shoulder the responsibility of caring for a loved one who even happened to be much younger than me. Had it happened earlier on, may be the experience would have drowned me.


I am not allowing myself to dwell on this experience-giving it power to harm me. Instead, I am forging ahead promoting and protecting people’s health and mine too as I swore almost forty years ago.


Most likely I needed to go through this experience to bring out the best of me.

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