Tuesday, June 1, 2010


A couple of weeks ago, while embarking on a vacation trip, I became sick. I was hugely fatigued, disoriented, insomnic and had a degree of fever. My pathology-dominated doctor mind kicked in: was this flu? Lyme disease? Lymphoma? I fretted mightily, and finally fell into a solid two-day sleep. When I awoke I was as good as new.

Or maybe better. My wife, Ronnie (Veronica, literally “speaker of truth”) commented, “You’re different now.”


“You’re more chatty, communicative.”

Hm. So I paid closer attention, and of course she was right. I was indeed more interested in engaging, and really enjoying it.

Relatives whom we visited asked, “So what were you sick with?”

I replied, “I don’t think I was sick. I molted.”

Remember molting? As snakes grow, they periodically shed their skins. The new snake emerges from the old snake, and I’m convinced it’s a painful process. I realized I’d experienced this before, in other events I’d labeled sickness. I also recalled that our kids’ sicknesses seemed to be uniformly followed by what we called “growth spurts.” In their convalescence they’d suddenly know how to read, or to ride their two-wheeler.

So here’s a fantasy I’d like to run by you. Might it be that sickness, as real and debilitating as it is, has an adaptive function, too, in removing us from our regular lives? In temporarily separating us from our habits, we have the opportunity to see ourselves anew. I compare the process to hockey’s penalty box. When you’re playing, you can only see part of the game. When you’re off the ice, in the box, you miss playing but on the other hand you can see the whole game.

A life-threatening illness like cancer is superb at grabbing our attention in this way. A recurring conversational component within our cancer support group is the unexpected benefits that this particular penalty box confers. People regularly say things like, “Cancer’s no pleasure, but if I hadn’t had it, I wouldn’t have quit that awful job in the cube farm,” or, “I’d have stayed indefinitely in that toxic marriage.” In fact, a couple of group members recently proposed that we write an anthology about cancer’s “benefits.” This sounds perverse outside a cancer group, so I don’t think the book would be a best-seller.

Anyway, I want to ask: have you also considered your episodes of sickness to be events—however uncomfortable—that ultimately improved your life?

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