Lesson from the Sick Bed

 

Our concepts of physical and psychological health have become one-sidedly identified with the heroic qualities most valued in our culture: youth, activity, productivity, independence, strength, confidence, and optimism.

Advertisements reflect our picture of health as young, white, slim, athletic, and beaming with “the cheerful effervescence of a Bernie Siegel or a Louise Hay,” as writer Daniel Harris wryly observed, referring to two prominent promoters of self-healing.

Even sick people are encouraged to cheer up and be brave, and those who can joke in the midst of obvious agony are revered by all. When we want to describe how healthy an old man is, we say he is “still going strong” or “keeping himself busy.”

We might say he is in “perfect health.” The very coupling of these two words betrays the idealism and striving perfectionism of health in our culture. A small sniffle or a week in the doldrums, not to mention an outbreak of cancer, can spoil that perfection. Health has become an impossible ideal.

Even though we have come to equate perfection with normalcy. Imperfection is more often the rule. There is not a one of us without some abnormality — flat feet, far-sightedness, dyslexia, a heart murmur, an enlarged liver from a bout of hepatitis, slight brain damage from a fall. Myths, fairy tales, and great works of literature, which abound in cripples and hunchbacks, one-eyed monsters, and big-nosed lovers, suggest that these abnormalities are not only normal but somehow necessary in the plot of life; they shape our characters and destinies, forge our greatnesses and smallnesses, while entertaining and instructing others at the same time.

That sensibility has been lost in recent years, as an increasing number of “abnormalities,” from small breasts to the desire to help others, are labeled defects or diseases that must be treated, corrected, or over-come.
In our infatuation with health and wholeness, illness is one-sidedly identified with the culturally devalued qualities of quiet, introspection, weakness, withdrawal, vulnerability, dependence, self-doubt and depression. If somebody displays any of these qualities to a great extent, he or she is likely to be considered ill and encouraged to see a doctor or a therapist. Many sick people are shamed by friends, family, or even their healers into thinking they are sick because the lack these “healthy” attitudes, even though illnesses often accompany critical turning points in our lives times when it is necessary to withdraw, reflect, sorrow, and surrender in order to make needed changes.

Normal life passages such as birth, menopause, and old age are now treated as illnesses in need of medical intervention, simply because they are often characterized by pain, withdrawal, introspection, and alienation.

“In health,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “the general pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed to communicate, to civilize. to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work together 13 day and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases. . . . We cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter- skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the firms time in years, to look round, to look up — to look. for example. at the As Woolf intimates. the withdrawal. inactivity, and alienation of illness threaten the social order. undermining the faith, optimism attachments, and obligations that keep systems in power — in the family, the workplace, and society at large. In the quiet stillness of the sickbed, where we look up and around, rather than straight ahead, another — truly revolutionary — perspective emerges.

When I was at my sickest from chronic fatigue syndrome, when I was spending the majority of the daylight hours in bed aching, I knew my illness was showing me facets of truth that I had missed — we had all missed, it seemed — and desperately needed. I did not want a quick cure that would tear me from those insights, though I could not admit that to most friends who wished me a speedy recovery; I wanted to find a way to carry my sickbed revelations back with me into health, to balance the lopsided optimism, confidence, and activity of my earlier life.

The extraordinary technology and powers of intervention that characterize modern medicine can eliminate many devastating symptoms in a flash; but they can also short-circuit a complicated system of suffering and meaning that is instrumental to life and consciousness. When problems are quickly solved, and we return to our old selves, the questions illnesses inevitably raise — and the insights and opportunities they offer are erased and nullified. We have developed so many tools, from visualizations to painkillers, for suppressing symptoms and their accompanying question marks that we have lost the ability to come to terms with pain and suffering, to be changed, informed, and even illumined, by their presence in our lives. —Kat Duff, Natural Health

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