The Lesson of Illness

Will humanity ever learn the lesson of illness?

I’m sure we’ve all learned this lesson personally. Times of illness exist on a different plane from times of health. Normally, we are driven by desires and duties, caught up in hundreds of swirls of activity. But when ill, the sick body becomes an unavoidable obstacle to the normal course; it demands attention, rest, nursing, operation, medication, therapy. Sometimes, however, it seems like even all this won’t be enough. Emotionally, we have all felt the fear of losing it entirely, of exploding with fever, migraine, ache, attack, up to that terrifying point: “I thought I was going to die.” We fall, faint, curl up, scream, unable to get rid of, or get outside of, this insane, sick, abnormal thing: the ill body forced to recognize itself as such and, if it can, “do” something about it–wait it out, get help, but from whom, and what if nothing can help? Such is the fear that cascades over us in a moment of great illness, paralyzing us with worry, foreboding the end of everything (or so we think).

The healthy, though they too have been sick before, cannot comprehend us in such moments, because illness cannot be imagined. Thus the shame of the sick body, its regret, its bleeding apology, even its “obscenity.” Our heart races, our skin crawls, our bellies churn, as if in a vacuum of madness, a chaos of evidence without clarity. Every inch of the flesh becomes a raging sensor, signaling our mortality, our fragility, and the thinness of the border between the normal course and its potentially indefinite suspension. This is not solitude, but the aloneness of the body, alone in its outcry and decrepitude. We even think illness portends death, because in it we “intuit,” beyond all speculation, a kind of personal portal or torture that coincides exactly with our ownmost individuality, so much so that we feel nothing will save us from the trial of our unique pain. Whoever surrounds us simply cannot look in, though we are sure they have or will face something similarly horrifying for themselves. (There is in illness grounds for a universal pity, and for an understanding of the shame of being housed in such corruptible vessels.)

The lesson of illness is not about the virtue of health, but about the “grace period” of healing and recovery between illnesses; the temporary restoration of the body to its own relatively autonomous order, where it does its daily thing rather miraculously, without our having much of a clue how it all actually holds together. When the tension abates, when the poison is evacuated, when movement is released, when we are back “on our feet again”: for the ill body, this is quite enough—enough to be thankful for, the simple continuation of life without outstanding pains. Who has not felt the almost divine nature of such breakthroughs, marked essentially by the fact that the body is no longer screaming at us like a parasite on our soul. We feel so renewed because it implies a return of ease, that is, a use of the body that is not forced to be conscious of itself, and that can thus act spontaneously, or trust habit, or plan deliberately, or contemplate what it can do, etc. Outside of this, we do not even recognize life proper, but only an interim stage, neither dead nor alive.

The heart of the lesson of illness is to be found in the gratitude we feel when the simple potentiality of life is restored to us corporeally, for this frees us from the sick body of constraint, and moreover frees us for the convalescing body of creation, shot through with that simplest potential. After a serious illness has finally cleared, we feel like newborns, shaken by what we’ve felt, but ready to embrace the chance of even one more day. The lesson of illness is there, not in the pain, but in the subtle bridge that links it to knowing convalescence. If it inspires such incredible thankfulness in our hearts—yes, even just one more day!—it is because it signifies nothing less than the presence of eternal life in us. On those days, we even experience the truth of our participation in it. The lesson of illness is that the sick body and the convalescing body are the same. (Would this not be the phenomenological core of resurrection? Paul: carrying with us always the dying body of Jesus, so that we might live his resurrection, the power of God perfected in weakness, etc.; much to be said here.)

For years I’ve fantasized about writing a book with the title: The Peace of the Invalids. I love this phrase because of its many paradoxes. Invalids are those who cannot participate in the normal course of society any longer, not by revolutionary choice, but by physical inability. They require the care of others because they physically cannot care for themselves. This group is essentially rejected by the world of politics and economics, whatever we call society. They are literally invalid: they cannot work or create value or in many cases even move. They not only produce nothing, but they take up the time of other members of society who could be more productive but are instead occupied by invalids who may never be nursed back to full health.

Then there is the paradox of peace, for an invalid can only find peace through a renunciation of any return the normal course of things, through an acceptance of their mortal fate or condition. It’s true I imagine this as a version of deathbed peace, which I think I have witnessed, though I certainly cannot, today, imagine having it. But from the limited observations in my own life, I can say that such peace is not had easily; it bears upon the whole struggle of holding onto life and letting go of it; essentially entrusting the eternity of life to others, even though we only ever felt it through our own living body. A terrifying and beautiful process. No one comes back from it; but along it, a knowledge that no other form of “research” could procure does seem possible. At such terminal points, the importance and reality of love—including the unshakeable bond between the living and the dead that love alone can establish—is communicated in its fullest impact and breadth. Again, it is not imaginable: it comes from the other side, just as the spoon feeding you is held by the hand of a caretaker. (It is given but exceeds our ability to receive it.)

The ultimatum posed to humanity by illness is just this: if we will feed the body of the invalid, or not? Will we grant the dying body its peace?

It is not economy or politics or art and philosophy that matter in the end for humanity: it is illness, the ill. It even defines humanity in its singularity: an obsession with its own end, its own impossibility. It’s no metaphysical mix-up that we think so much about death, for it is rooted in the most unmistakeably raw experience of illness. Only this theme will take us past the hostile logic of the survival of the fittest, which only makes sense if we leave out or deny sickness. Yet we never learn the lesson of “sickness unto convalescence,” of daily resurrection into life. We fail to hold tight that gratitude, and instead just move ahead. Once healthy, we fall back into the groove of the normal course, taking it for granted that the body will do what it’s told, forgetting that all around us there are burdened and broken bodies that cannot and won’t. The laboring body–is it as capable as we pretend? Is it healthy, or merely convalescent? Is there not an invalid underneath it, waiting to find peace?

And why is it that the body that has dwelt long with illness, by and large, finds it so absurd to return to the normal course once it has healed and refound its ease? Why does it feel—or how does it know—that this would be a total waste of the extra time, the grace period, it has been granted? Why does a taste of invalidity lead to such courage in refusing the society that operates on the assumption of general health (as opposed, for example, to the assumption of a general resurrection)? Why is the peace of the invalid so hard for us, invalids in wait, to face?

I wait upon the restructuring of society that would do justice to our common invalidity. It is love, a caretaker’s love, that will do this—not law or political drum-thumping.

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