The true meaning of Easter

Somewhere along the way, people have forgotten the true meaning of Easter. Despite all the people complaining online, it’s not about chocolate eggs and family get-togethers, lying in the sun or walking along the beach. Nor is it about going to church to sing, take communion and pray. It is literally about sacrifice – sacrifice to save others. And there is no greater message we need at this time.

Whether or not you believe that Jesus was the son of God, the entire basis of the Christian festival is that an innocent man allowed himself to be executed in a pretty nasty way in order to save people he had never met. For all the bad things done in the name of religion, and all the bile flung at it these days by secular society, it’s pretty hard to argue that the message of Jesus is anything other than good.

He said that, when struck, we should turn the other cheek; we should judge not, lest we be judged; we should do unto others as we’d have them do unto us; and we should love our neighbours as ourselves. How is this anything other than an instruction to be a nice, decent, compassionate and caring member of society? Going to the cross was the ultimate expression of that regard, giving up his life and his blood to help others.

While not a Christian myself, I was raised as one and I still try to follow the Golden Rule of treating others how I’d wish to be treated myself. It forms the hard nugget at the centre of my core values, beliefs and attitudes. It’s the reason I believe that, whatever the rights and wrongs of immigration, people in leaky boats ought to be rescued; that any military force that can describe civilians as ‘collateral damage’ has lost the moral high ground; and that if not seeing our families is what it takes to save lives during this coronavirus crisis, it’s what we have to do.

It’s also the reason I gave blood on Good Friday.

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I’m not a normal blood donor, however – I’m a platelet donor. Platelets, or thrombocytes, are little yellow discs carried in your blood that join together to create clots, vital in the healthy functioning of your circulatory system to stop cuts from bleeding externally and blood vessels from leaking internally, and to heighten your immune response. Essentially, people with leukaemia or lymphoma, those with transplanted organs, those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer or suffering kidney dysfunction, those who have suffered burns and those who lose massive amounts of blood from trauma, need transfusions of platelets or else they’ll die.

Unlike whole blood, which lasts about a month in a refrigerator, or red cells, which can be frozen for ten years and defrosted when needed, platelets only last seven days. That’s why you need a continual chain of platelet donors donating every day, or else the supply runs out and people die.

Unfortunately, not everyone can donate platelets because in order to do so you need:

  1. A high platelet count.
  2. A vein capable of delivering and receiving blood under pressure.
  3. A tolerance for the anticoagulant.
  4. Two spare hours every 2-4 weeks.

There are 12,000 of us in the UK, or one for every 100 blood donors, meaning that at times like this, we’re especially in demand. On the plus side, one donation can save three adults or up to twelve children. On the down side, it isn’t the most comfortable of procedures.

The process, called apheresis, starts with around five minutes extracting your blood into a centrifuge which separates out the platelets, then you go into a cycle of thirty seconds draw (where it extracts more platelet-rich blood) and thirty seconds return (where it pumps platelet-free blood back into you). Along the way, if you’re up to it, it also extracts plasma, the liquid component of blood, so you end up with a bunch of bags filled with what looks like melted butter. It takes somewhere between sixty and ninety minutes to complete the procedure, before it spends a final five minutes pumping the blood that’s left in the machine back into your arm.

The discomfort isn’t the size of the needle – though the needle is fairly big, and a month ago they missed my vein and stuck it straight into a nerve, which hurt like hell – but various other factors. The anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing makes your lips and tongue tingle, which can be unpleasant, and after forty-five minutes you can get pretty restless and claustrophobic knowing you’re stuck there for another forty-five watching your blood flow back and forth. Also, the first few returns before the machine has warmed up, the blood coming back into you is cold, which is a weird sensation. And if you’re squeamish, there’s really nowhere to hide – you have three tubes coming out of your arm (one drawing, one returning, and one with the anticoagulant).

But saving lives was never so easy. An hour and a half watching Netflix on your tablet, with nurses bringing you coffee and chocolate biscuits? It’s hardly stretcher bearers in No Man’s Land at the Somme, is it? Yet in four years, with a bit of time off because of hospital stuff, I’ve saved 75 adults or 300 children – enough to populate an entire primary school.

That is the true spirit of Easter – sacrificing your time, your comfort, even your blood, to save people you have never met nor likely ever will. It’s sending out positivity into the world, knowing it will do good. And it’s something we can all achieve simply by staying at home.

That’s why I cannot condone or understand people going off to visit their families today of all days.

Working on yourself isn’t selfish

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been struggling with mental illness for a while now. Well, all my life in fact, but it’s been particularly severe of late. I’ve pushed myself past the point of sanity, kept struggling on far longer than I should, sacrificing my health, my hobbies, my self-esteem and my dreams in order to be the best father I can be.

And after four years I’ve burned out and can’t give of my best anymore.

I’ve come to realise, as I should have done years ago, that you can’t look after anyone else if you don’t look after yourself. It’s like when a plane is going down and the oxygen masks drop from overhead – put your own mask on before you help the children with theirs, otherwise you pass out and you all die. I thought that being miserable was part of the job, that feeling empty and unfulfilled was a cross that every parent has to bear and I could stubbornly push on and survive on willpower alone. Now I know better.

You can’t be a good parent if all you do is parent. You have to leave the kids, go out and experience all the wonders that the world has to offer, so you can bring that wonder back into your life and give it to your children. Without balance – without time away to gain perspective – you become stuck in unhealthy and repetitive cycles.

need down time, hobbies and personal goals that aren’t centred on parenting. I need to find space for Gillan the man, alongside Gillan the dad.

At school I was told I wouldn’t find fulfilment anywhere outside a university, and they were right. After my first degree, I was strongly encouraged to do a PhD. Instead, I got a second degree and a Masters, after which I was even more strongly encouraged to do a PhD. That was 2015, a few months before my daughter was born and studying had to take a back seat.

Now that she’s started school and my second daughter is two, I’ve decided I want to go for my PhD, and it’s the first time in years that I’ve felt excited about something, where the future seems to hold possibility and light instead of an endless slog of crushed hopes and forgotten dreams.

I’m not unrealistic. With a needy wife and two young kids, I’ll have to do it part time, and without two beans to rub together I’ll have to secure funding, but with a will to succeed I don’t think these difficulties are insurmountable. And as it will make me a better, happier, more contented person, I will be a better father and better husband. To be frank, I’m not good at either right now, and if it keeps going as it is, my marriage is going to fail. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Unfortunately, my decision has been met with decidedly less enthusiasm than I imagined. I’ve been told by various people – people I thought would understand – that I ‘can’t’ do a PhD; that I have ‘delusions of grandeur’; that as a father, with a family to think of, the time and opportunity has passed. The implication has been, almost universally, that to do a PhD would somehow be ‘selfish’, and they think less of me for even entertaining such a notion.

I hadn’t realised that having children means your life is over. Forget having hopes and dreams, forget trying to improve yourself and your situation in life – where you are when you have kids is where you will remain until you die. I should just ‘man up’ and struggle on, I suppose, keep feeling horribly empty, irritable and unhappy, keep failing as a husband and a father, so long as I don’t upset the apple cart. How selfish of me to try and escape that destructive mentality and make something of myself, and in the process become the person I want to be.

There’s nothing noble about sacrificing your dreams when you become a parent. For some people, having a family is their whole life. It isn’t for me. I didn’t cease to be an individual the moment I slipped on my ‘dad hat’. I have many roles to play in this world and I refuse to be pigeonholed into one that is only part of who I am. Turning away from life to focus on on your children makes you insular, one-dimensional, and blind. I’d rather put out my eyes and engage with the world by touch than choose to ignore it.

It isn’t selfish to work on yourself. Nor is it desirable. It’s essential. It makes you a better person and a better parent. Would I want my girls to give up their dreams when they become mothers? No. I’d expect them to take their children with them as they shoot for the stars. And that’s the example I want to give them. Why settle for one or the other when you can have both? Life isn’t about shutting yourself off and staying in the same place, it’s about opening up and going on a journey. This river has been stagnant long enough; it’s time to let it flow again.

No matter what anyone else thinks.