Saturday, February 20, 2010

ILLNESS’ BEST-KEPT SECRET

A friend moved from California to the midwest a year ago. He discovered he didn’t like it there. Accustomed to his life of construction and log-splitting, all he could find to do was to sit around and watch television. Physical activity had validated his existence, and now he felt he was dwindling away. He decided to drive back to California—in the middle of winter. On a lonely, icy, subzero Wyoming highway he got a flat tire.

Had it been me, I probably would have beaten my head on the steering wheel. He didn’t. As a matter of fact, he exulted. “Finally!” he said to himself. “I get to do something!” He joyously removed the tire and drove directly to California on his mini-spare.

It’s all perspective, isn’t it?

That's where sickness offers possibility. For all its griefs, it removes us from our usual, habitual vantage point and offer us a new view. Sometimes I see my life as a hockey game and sickness as exile to the penalty box where I can’t play, only observe. From there the game necessarily looks different, and I’m free to see versions I hadn’t noticed before.

Cancer, for example, is certainly a trail of tears rather than a walk in the park, but as time passes, subtle benefits often appear. People in support groups have told me for three decades variations of, “If it weren’t for having cancer, I wouldn’t have changed my life.” Rubbing up against mortality forced them to evaluate their moment-to-moment choices, and they made changes—in their habits, their relationships, careers, and especially attitudes.

A friend who’s had cancer muses about writing down these experiences and publishing them in an anthology called “The Hidden Benefits of Cancer.” Great, but it won’t be a bestseller. Who wants to read about the “good” side of a disease we fear more than the plague?

Besides, these lessons can’t be taught, only comprehended through real-time experience. Long ago I facilitated a support group in which a woman who’d been clear of cancer for four years spoke regularly about how her illness had changed her life for the better. At one meeting she told a freshly diagnosed man, “You may not realize it now, but believe me, eventually you’ll see your cancer as a blessing.”

Ooooo. My neck hairs stood up. He didn’t need to hear that then. Some truths are useful only at the right time.

Though premature revelations can be useless at best, the principle itself deserves wider discussion. We culturally see sickness as an unmitigated catastrophe, but how would we approach it if we valued the lessons it might offer?

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