Miserable and, (though common to all) inhuman posture, where I must practise my lying in the grave, by lying still, and not practise my Resurrection, by rising any more.
–John Donne, Meditation lll Devotions upon Emergent Occasions,
Felled again by illness, I am advised to rest, the one thing I do not do well.
I was fine nine days ago, having managed a road trip and a two week family vacation fairly well. I just had time to congratulate myself on that feat when the too-familiar tingling sensation that precedes a fever crept up on me. I chose to ignore it, and the following day, I was struck by a more severe headache and chills. By that night I was in full-blown distress—fever, chills, body racked by joint, muscle and skin pain. My life dissolved into misery—I seeped in a nasty brew of worthlessness and self-laceration, the good of my life leeched away by pain and weakness. I felt alone, isolated by my pain, which, like a jealous lover, kept me all to Itself. It felt as if I were being punished for some grievous yet unknown sin. It didn’t matter knowing my bodily integrity had been invaded an infectious agent. In the thick of illness, it felt as if I’ve been cast into a dark pit by some Malevolence. It felt personal, and only the language of the Psalms seemed equal to expressing it.
Two days later, still ill, but upright, I was able to consider less feverishly that my illness was a course correction, that I was “off the mark,” which is how Buddhists think of sin. Buddhists, it seems, look at illness as an opportunity for enlightenment, that the illness itself is he cure, not the affliction. Even John Donne believed that in the symptoms of illness were the seeds of healing, if we could attend to them. I am still working on this process of dialoging with my symptoms, but what interests me now is how I (and we) so often think of illness as a failure. What if we didn’t, what if we simply accepted our illnesses as perhaps necessary time outs?
I’m reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, and he recalls his childhood illnesses almost fondly, and how they seemed to enhance both perception and imagination. In his novel, The Gift, based on his early memories, he writes “Mother unhurriedly shakes the thermometer and slips it back into its case, looking at me as if not quite recognizing me, while my father rides his horse at a walk across a vernal plain all blue with irises.” (G, 33). For Nabokov, we might imagine, illness gave his sensitive self time to process all the sensory information which, as a synesthete, bombarded him. It gave him time to investigate his imagination. Instead of diffusing his sense of self, it seemed to solidify it.
Another contemporary writer, the splendid Anthony Doerr, in his incredible short story, “Afterworld,” (The Memory Wall, Scribner) describes an elderly Jewish woman, Esther, who had, as a fifteen-year-old epileptic and an orphan, escaped the Holocaust. In the story, she is saved from the ovens by a doctor who saw value in her. Despite the accusations hurled at her that she should be “put away,” that her illness rendered her worthless, in-valid, it was this very illness that gave her a unique sensitivity which the doctor recognized and valued. Now, in her eighties, the epilepsy and hallucinations that both plagued her and gave her great imaginative riches, are no longer controlled by medicine. In the present time, she is being taken care of by her grandson, Robert. “In Ohio seizures flow through Esther….The seizures no longer seem to impair her consciousness so much as amplify it….Maybe, she tells Robert, during her clearest moments, a person can experience an illness as a kind of health. Maybe not every disease is a deficit, a taking away. Maybe what’s happening to her is an opening, a window, a migration….”
Kat Duff, in her classic The Alchemy of Illness, also speaks about illness as an alchemical transformation that offers the sufferer an opportunity to engage deeply in spiritual processes. She quotes Paracelsus, a renowned physician and alchemist of the sixteenth century: “Decay is the beginning of all birth…the midwife of very great things!”
No one chooses to be ill. And I certainly hope to regain some degree of health. Yet here it is, and I do have a choice in how to address this illness, how to imagine it, how to engage with it.