Two nights ago, our children from Bethesda were visiting, and we had a party with a few friends. I had just come back from visiting my sister, who was appalled that I didn’t have an iPhone, and didn’t text. We were talking about the pros and cons of iPhones, when one of our guests, a man of bottomless curiosity, asked what the name Bethesda meant. “It’s in the Bible,” he said, looking meaningfully at me as if that meant I should know the name. “Well,” I said, “I have read that book any number of times, but I can’t remember everything.” So he whipped out his iPhone and looked it up.
This is what he found on Wikipedia under Pool of Bethesda: “The name of the pool is said to be derived from the Hebrew language and/or Aramaic language. beth hesda (בית חסד/חסדא), meaning either house of mercy or house of grace. In both Hebrew and Aramaic the word could also mean ‘shame, disgrace’. This dual meaning may have been thought appropriate since the location was seen as a place of disgrace due to the presence of invalids, and a place of grace, due to the granting of healing.”
I hadn’t really cared about the name, but this grabbed my attention. It brought home to me how ancient the twinning of shame and illness is. And even though we are modern people who believe that we no longer “blame the victim,” both for those who are sick and for others around them, I think shame still plays a potent role in our experience of illness.
In my own experience of illness, I often find that along with the pain and fatigue comes the vinegary presence of a lingering guilt. I may tell myself it isn’t my fault that I am sick, but I feel as if it is. I wonder how much of that conditioning goes back for hundreds of generations, when sin and sickness were seen as one and the same? Or is it the American belief that we can do anything if we try hard enough, which makes failing at wellness such a trial? No one wants to be a burden to others, no one wants to fall behind. When you are sick, though, it becomes hard to feel you are contributing or participating in the life around you. To be an invalid is all too often to be in-valid.
As for how others respond to sickness, I think as a society we find chronic illness in particular, unacceptable. We don’t have mechanisms to cope with it. Fear probably plays into this, as it did for the leprosy patients at Carville, Louisiana who were taken from their homes and deprived of family and name, so that the remaining families would not be burned in their homes or run out of town. Leprosy, in America even in the twentieth century, was seen as the fault of ill. Today, we use fighting metaphors for cancer, and yet what about the person who doesn’t “win” against cancer? Is it because they didn’t fight hard enough? We tend to turn our backs on people who aren’t winners. It is too painful for us.
Here is the first stanza of a poem I wrote recently.
What do the healthy
have to do with the ill?
Why would they want
to hear the news–
that the body is fragile
and we live at its will?
But what about grace? What about healing? What about the image of healing waters?
John O’Donohue has written that when we are in our deepest suffering, that we should offer ourselves the oil of compassion, because we are experiencing the most essential aspect of being human. It is suffering, he says, which allows us to truly connect to others. Yet, how hard this is to do! How much easier to blame ourselves, and to struggle against our circumstances. How hard to sit with what is, and look for the blessings there.
Kat Duff, in her wonderful book, The Alchemy of Illness, which I read at the worst stage of my illness, doesn’t see illness as the enemy to be struggled against, but as part of the human experience which offers opportunities for spiritual growth. I have found that in my own life, while I wouldn’t wish this illness on anyone, it has brought me many gifts as well. Healing, it seems, is not just for the body, but for the soul as well. I have seen in the cancer patients that I’ve worked with great healing as they jettison a lot of unneeded baggage, and find their true voices.
I love the image of healing waters, of being suspended in them, of washing away all that burdens you, both physically and spiritually. Water is receptive and holding, cleansing and renewing. Here is a photo of the pool of Bethesda.
Our children left today to go back to Bethesda, which I hope will be a place of grace for them. Richard left with his iPhone. I’m taking my iPhoneless self for a swim.