In health we have a set of values so overwhelmingly strong that even, subconsciously, we will sabotage anything that gets in the way of them. And yet, when we are ill, those values become the subject of ridicule, we engage in immediate and significant re-negotiation with ourselves. It seems that we only value wealth over health when we have health.
Illness brings us something: We try to explain it with the intellect but language for this needs to be more primitive, more sensual, more obscene. A new hierarchy of the passions comes true during illness; love must be deposed in favour of a temperature of 104; jealousy give place to the pangs of sciatica; sleeplessness play the part of our greatest enemy, and the hero become a white pill with a sugary taste — the pain killer becomes the universe, little else seems to get past it.
When we are in health, we maintain the illusion, both psychological and outwardly performative, of being cradled in the arms of …. (family, partner, God, universe, whatever). But illness jolts us out of it, orphans us from belonging. And it also does something else, something beautiful and transcendent:
Illness, in piercing the trance of busyness and obligation, awakens us to the world about us, whose smallest details, neglected by our regular mindless conscience, suddenly throb with aliveness and magnetic curiosity. It renders us “able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up — to look, for example, at the sky”: we recover awe.
Hamstrung and alone, not feeling connected at all, somewhat abandoned by the naive trust we had in the “cradling” we gain a first impression of that extraordinary spectacle and it is strangely overcoming. Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible. Pedestrians would be impeded and disconcerted by a public sky-gazer. What snatches we get of it are mutilated by high rise buildings and churches, that serve as a background for our illusion of life and our values.
Now unwell, lying recumbent, feeling abandoned, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking. This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it! — this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, veiling the sun and unveiling it, with this alone, illness has bought us home again.
With illness we look around and see nature. But in this communion with nature resides the most disquieting fact of existence — the awareness of an unfeeling universe, operating by impartial laws unconcerned with our individual fates: The Universal Laws of Nature…
Nature, divinely beautiful is also divinely heartless. Immeasurable resources are used for some purpose which has nothing to do with human pleasure or human profit. The earth opens and swallows whole cities, fires burn, floods devour, the ocean rises, winds smash.
The paradoxical way in which these heartless laws are the very reason we are called to make beauty and meaning within their unfeeling parameters: “There is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself,” It is a discovery that is forced upon us in the sincere realisation, that all our talk is for naught, when our health is lost to illness.
This sudden awareness of elemental truth renders the ill person a sort of seer, imbued with an almost mystical understanding of existence, beyond any intellectual interpretation.
In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other — a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause — which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain.
Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning, work, doing, wanting has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure attachment, even beneath a grudge and the words of appreciation for small things give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the bed, and our distressed realisation that we are mortal, and the body is far more important than we may have imagined when it was healthy.
Poets have found religion in nature; people live in the country to learn virtue from plants. It is in their indifference that they are comforting. That snowfield of the mind, where man has not trodden, is visited by the cloud, kissed by the falling petal, as, in another sphere, it is the great artists, the Miltons and the Popes, who console not by their thought of us but by their forgetfulness.Virginia Woolfe
It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal — that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will lie thick upon factory and engine; the sun will go out. (Or the opposite, and we will fry like onions on a hotplate barbecue left on too long.)
DO WE REALLY NEED TO BECOME ILL IN ORDER TO GAIN THE MANY BENEFITS ILLNESS WILL BRING US?
Yes, if we are unprepared to listen to Nature’s Bible, your body.
No, if we learn what Illness will teach us before illness becomes the teacher: it is a valuable teacher, but only a last resort teaching in life, to cause us redefine our values on the path to our “everest.”
Stress, anger, anxiety, sadness, ingratitude, jealousy, self-doubt, uncertainty, absent, over or under valuing ourselves and the single minded addiction to “work for reward” will all be leading us to Illness. But this does not have to be so.
Let me guide you away from illness by guiding you toward nature’s teachings. Spend some time lying down looking up, even when you are well. BE aware of your work ethic, priorities and be aware of causing change before you need it.