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The Zen of being ill

August 30, 2008

I recently read an article by a well known Dutch woman writer, who claims it is a lot of nonsense to see illness as a life lesson, or to try to make the best of it in any way at all.  She has MS and has had breast cancer and survived them both. She poses as simply a realist. But even in view of the difficult health challenges she is facing, I find her view embittered. 

When questioned about a man who recently recovered from a heart attack and felt that his life had changed for the better, she said, ‘Fine for him, but I can’t fool myself like that’.

To the statement that after illness you often enjoy the small things in life more, she said,’That’s only relief’.

I admit that she made a legitimate point about the tendency in our society to avoid pain and suffering at all costs, and to try to smooth them over with various ‘pseudo spiritual’ explanations. But she goes on to assert that people can’t really change fundamentally and that if anything, illness amplifies personal characteristics, often negative ones,  rather than changing them.

But her dark view only reenforces the prevailing lack of meaning and hopelessness that so many people are suffering from.

The examples she gave, tended to prove out her views, (which is usually the way it works, the world you see is the world you get).  She spoke about another Dutch writer with MS who said, ‘the concept that sickness can be a life lesson is a psychosomatic insult’.  This woman eventually committed suicide.

On the other hand, I heard an interview on the radio of a very young DJ who had been paralyzed from the waist down and  there wasn’t a trace of bitterness in his story. On the contrary, he too was a fighter, but his gentleness and acceptance and his conviction that he could use his experience to help others in the same situation, spread healing wherever his name came up.  And it would be to someone like him I would turn to and draw hope from when the time came where I might be confronted with similar circumstances.

Yes, there is suffering, and pain that can’t be softened. Sicknesses are messy, humiliating, painful and horrible.  And yet, there are always people who don’t let themselves be defined by this, and manage to transcend their circumstances not only for themselves, but also for each one of us.

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