Television and the Retreat from Consciousness

Dr. Sean Spence

This article originally appeared in Issue 13 of Beshara Magazine, published in print in 1992


MY ABIDING MEMORY of the pediatric wards is of the prevalence of televisions.

Rasping throughout the day, with a stream of talk shows and soap operas, often the volume turned off altogether but the faces miming dialogues that nobody can hear or really care about . An intrusive backdrop, a flickering face on a screen across the room replaces family or attention per se, perhaps placating only the fear of being alone.

Ward rounds shamble from cubicle to cubicle, the notes trolley clanking and banging, heavy and metallic; the solid gravity, the centre in an atmosphere of heat and noise, fever and crying. Often sounds reach such a pitch – the synchronised chorus from the televisions all over the ward, children’s cries and screams, the speech of their parents, the buzzing and bleeping of monitors and pagers – that they merge in a cacophony of meaningless information.

All sound but no content. All emotion but no substance. One is often relieved by the silence of the night. One night in cubicle number one there was a child dying of a rare tumour. She was three years old with her hair short , as if shaven, as a result of chemotherapy. The tumour was in her system – it pervaded her as if it had taken over, as if she would never wake to be the child she once used to be. The child her parents knew, the child whose vigil they performed , slouched on either side of her body. She, curled and contorted,
comatose and looking as if she would never wake up. She would not.

In the corner of the room the television eavesdropped. It played shadows of blue, white and red across the room, silhouetting the bars at the end of the bed, the forms of the parents in waiting, its light enough to reflect them in the window opposite me. I could see their tears in that window. It became a mirror in the night . The emotions playing across the room did so without me, carried on around me. My presence was superfluous. No medical intervention would save her now. Curing is easy, but not curing is so hard, an impotence in the soul.

The gathered relatives, extended family, filled the rest of the room. Middle-aged men in suits crouched, sitting on plastic chairs , with tabloid newspapers open before them. They appeared to read the inane headlines by the glow of the artificial light, so that other agencies’ realities flooded theirs.

Their own state of reality must have been so great – a grandchild about to die – yet they chose instead to ruminate on external symbols, signs, secrets, intrigues, consumer durables which would not sustain them. When our own internal, subjective world becomes too real, when our own consciousness is too connected, do we then retreat into the external, the objective, the unreal?

I do not know. I know that I watched and participated in the real event, the moment the universe changed a little, while those others there were looking at the breasts and scandals, crosswords and cartoons, and the television lights offered sunlit futures in gleaming kitchens and children in clean clothes who smiled a lot.

As I step out onto the open ward, the darkness hits me like an ocean. Dark and heavy the blackness engulfs me. I walk to the nurses’ station and sit down. The thought of the ocean follows me. The ocean of consciousness, that which evolves and is given, that which can be taken away. The ebb and flow of transience and I am thinking back. I am thinking back to thoughts I have thought before, other nights staring at mirrored windows waiting for the sun to rise.

Other nights overseeing death in an atmosphere which is tangible – connected – numinous and immanent to me. Thinking back to others’ thoughts as they thought, perhaps the same way too. Others on a globe within another time, thinking prayers and incantations. I think in their connected-ness. And as if a scale has lifted from before my eyes, all time melts away and only the ocean remains. The still and silent sway. Silence. I am waiting for the wave. Nothing . . . and then, a crash and roar upon the rock, upon the bank of time. A mighty wave raining vapour and droplet, salt and essence to the air. The ocean is consciousness. The world is conscious in the night; connected and all-knowing. All thoughts are occurring synchronously, ebbing, changing form, and then a mighty wave brings forth an individual. Transformed from the groundswell of consciousness surrounding us, pervading the whole world, we condense and are born, given one short span as separate, individual identities, to do with what we will. To fly, float and experience motion; to be taciturn and tactile, experience reality in a conscious world; to grow and flower, and stretch our mighty wings like birds and find those things we must, before once again the ocean claims us, and as before we enter the waves, the ebbing, flowing, living ocean of consciousness.

I look from the hospital ward. The night is dark with the faint glimmer of crimson all along the horizon. Another cycle turns again. It is in the nature of things. The nature of what it is to be alive. I am feeling the transience with every ache of m being when they come to tell me she has gone.

Sean Spence is hospital doctor who is about to go into General Practice. He has a degree in Psychology, and besides a paper on paratyphoid, has published papers on consciousness and meaning in medicine. He is a member of the British Holistic Medical Association and the Scientific and Medical Network.