Friday, October 22, 2010

LEARNING FROM ILLNESS


When our kids were little, we noticed that they had a growth spurt following illnesses. They dramatically matured in some way. Suddenly they read better or were more friendly. Realizing now that that curious phenomenon happens in adulthood, too, I’ve shifted my perspective about sickness: it really does have a silver lining…if you look for it.

I routinely ask people with cancer what they’ve learned from the experience. I don’t do that at first meeting, of course, since such a conversation requires trust. As you might expect, everyone offers a different answer. For many, cancer delivers revelations that change their lives, and for some…well, one woman responded, “Here’s what I learned: don’t get cancer.”

Sometimes we’re able to squeeze a significant personal event for its inherent wisdom. Sometimes we miss it altogether, and that’s too bad, since sickness is so expensive, it’s a shame not to cut our losses by at least learning something from it. In addition, if a life-threatening illness doesn’t push our face into the existential mirror, then what will we extract from less compelling events?

I haven’t had cancer, but I have had my share of raps from two-by-fours. Thirty-five years ago, suffering from viral meningitis, lying on my back in a rigid arc, I was surprised to find myself thinking, “Hm. What am I supposed to get from this?” I did learn a little something from it, and, later, this: if it takes two-by-fours to awaken my curiosity about how the world works, why don’t I get sensitive enough to respond to one-by-twos—or feathers, for that matter? In fact, why don’t I learn from virtually every experience?

2 comments:

  1. The epiphany I have had in recent days is that the lack of compassion/human touch/spiritual closeness that Dr. Kane rightfully deplores on his blog is unfortunately not limited to healthcare. Stepping outside my door this morning, two neighbors were crossing on the other side of the courtyard, only about 25 feet wide, trudging wordlessly and face down to work. I felt foolish to say Good Morning or hello, and yet I regretted not doing so later. We are all fearful... and as big money assaults us with ad upon ad, doing nothing but fear mongering so that we will step in line with their profiteering, rather than realizing how much power each of us actually has to help each other and heal each other, whether we are health professionals or not...we can either succumb to the fear, or resist with kindness.

    Yet while we deplore patients in the hospital having to "be hooked up to monitors"---how many of us are "hooked up" to computer monitors for work, and then "hooked up" to iphones, ipods, Blackberries, etc? How is our totally plugged in society much different from being on life support that depends on electrical machines and devices?
    Well, the machines in the hospital allow us to live, so we like them....and the machines at work and in our lives allow us to "connect" remotely or virtually, but not really, to other people, and we are in love with that too....
    but I think many of us born in the age before technology was so omnipresent worry that the loss of eye contact, basic civility with neighbors, and the enjoyment of physical activities is a big price to pay.....

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  2. Yup, I agree. True, true, true. We’re kept awake at night by the noise of standards dropping. Unfulfilled in the midst of plenty, we inhabit a crumbling empire, a centrifugal society. Believe me, I can rant indefinitely on the subject.

    One of my kids asked me, though, “Dad, how come you only watch movies and read books about the Holocaust and Katrina and Columbine? Is that any way to enjoy life?” She got my attention. Yeah, there’s a lot of awful, but there’s inspiration, too. It does me good to walk into town and seek delight, which is always there for the looking. It may sound trite, but Gandhi said it well: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

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