In the novel, Kristin Lavransdatter, set in Medieval Norway, the middle-aged protagonist reflects on her brother’s troubles, which, while they don’t affect her directly, affect her nonetheless, because, she reflects, they are part of each other. She likened it to feeling the vibrations along a spider’s web, how a disturbances in one part affect the whole. This image has stayed with me over many years, not only as an image of how families are connected, but also of how sensitive communities of any sort are to the well-being of their members. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all a part of a a social matrix which affects our health. I just read a blurb–was it in Oprah?–that if your friend’s friend is happy, that increases your likelihood of being happy, even if you don’t know this person.
We Americans like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, self-made, self-determined. That belief can provide a lot of pride when the wheel of fortune rises to the top, but it can also crush one when the wheel of fortune rolls to the bottom. Self-reliance is a good trait, up to a point. Past a certain point it creates a lonely society.
I am thinking in particular of the various feelings of failure and guilt that often accompany a chronic or acute illness. Instead of seeing our situation as part of the common lot of humanity, we often focus on our individual failures–if only I had eaten better, gotten more exercise, not gotten divorced…..fill in the blank. And these feelings of guilt and shame only further isolate the sick person, creating more stress, and inhibiting healing.
The healthy don’t want to hear the stories of the sick, and the sick know it, just as the married don’t want to hear stories of the divorced. The mere acknowledgement of the experience of illness, some seem to believe, gives it too much power. And so we isolate the ill and refuse to hear their stories and think thereby we are preserving our own health. We are as superstitious as any Amazonian tribe, and perhaps not as wise.
But the vibrations are still felt on the web. By not giving the ill a chance to express their experience in all its chaos and pain, the chaos and pain remains, affecting the community nevertheless. It inhibits the healing of the individual, but it also inhibits the healing of the community. By not finding ways to express the lived experience of illness, all of us are diminished in our humanity. Ellen Dissanayake, author, professor of music and lecturer on the nature of art, asks, what is art for? in her many articles and books. Her answers have great implications for our understanding of how the arts strengthen community and individual healing. (http://ellendissanayake.com/). The arts can provide that bridge between the country of the ill and the country of the well, increasing all of our capacities for understanding, and also for compassion and joy.