There is a Buddhist story in the book of Udana that tells us about a man’s journey to embrace the darkness in life. He states that “guarded and protected, I dwelt fearful, anxious, trembling, and afraid. But now, Sir, as as I resort to forest dwelling, to the roots of trees, to lonely spots, though alone, I am fearless, assured, confident, and unafraid. I live at ease, unstilted, lightsome” (Wilson, 1995, p. 555). It’s a story that reminds us that our fears can be the most terrifying part of our existence. The more sheltered we are in life, the more we fear pain and discomfort, but once we embrace our pain, we often become enriched for it. When faced with ever-increasing mass violence, natural disasters, and a rapidly changing world, we have to ponder how we become like the man in the woods who is enriched by his pain? How do we prevent becoming consumed by our pain and even grow from our suffering?
After I became ill, my worst fear was that I would never be the same again, and that was exactly what happened. Encephalomyelitis––a virus that entered my spine and brain, triggered a disease that may otherwise have laid dormant for the duration of my life. It is hard to describe what it is like to go from normal dreams and aspirations to unrecoverable darkness so quickly. From being a relatively normal kid that was excited to have a major part in a school play to a kid whose legs stopped working and collapsed when it was time to enter stage left. The high fevers, vomiting, and being unable to stay awake could have been a really a bad sickness, leaving a chance to recover someday…but then organs started to shut down and hope of any kind of normalcy occurring again died. No longer protected by the health so many take for granted, a metaphorical “woods” of constant illness opened.
With massive disasters of all types occurring within our world at an alarming rate, we as a society are being forced to face our greatest fears as a collective. The fears that we won’t have a stable environment to live in. The fear that the order we have carved out for centuries is rapidly crumbling before our eyes, and the fear that the world leaders that we thought could give us solutions, in truth, just have band-aids for problems that need stitches. As the Dalai Lama points out we are facing “grave problems of overpopulation, dwindling natural resources, and an environmental crisis that threatens the very foundation of our existence on this planet” (Steward, 2009, loc. 240). The chronically ill can play a role in this transition. We can help people in a world facing this sort of catastrophic change by teaching how to determine the truth of a situation before forging a new path or identity, and how to have all the different parts of self and people around us united on a path out of the darkness. Doing this is essential to finding enough stable ground to grow from pain.
Each global disaster we face weakens our world a little more. With crises hitting at an ever more rapid pace, the world is becoming chronically ill. Events that a healthy planet would have be able to bounce back from become horrific in an already weakened state. When the delicate homeostasis that maintains health of an ecosystem is thrown off, imbalances that would be a minor set back in a healthy organism become major problems. When I was healthy, I could get a cold and recover within a few days, but after I became chronically ill, a cold could become a catastrophic moment. The chronically ill face these kinds of moments more often than most. Hence we have become experts on how to transform pain, fear, crisis, and massive change to something meaningful because when we lose our fight to survive, the illness leaves us broken and dying rather than thriving.
There is a Buddhist sayings within the Dhammapada (as cited in Shapiro, 2017, p.47) that states those “who are just, speak the truth, and take responsibility for themselves, the world holds dear.” For the world to begin its healing journey, we need to unite with an accurate picture of what has happened to get us to this place. Most chronically ill understand that this process can be challenging, take a lot of time, and leave one confused. We call it the diagnosis period where our care team tries to fit the broken pieces of our lives into a story that makes sense to all involved. To make this process go more smoothly, this is what the chronically ill have learned: during this time, focus on the facts and not on opinions, esp. opinions that have an agenda to push. Facts will lead to the truth of a situation. Opinions are always at risk of simply defending the reality one wants to be true. In other words, to get to real answers, we can’t disregard the facts we don’t want to hear.
There is a Biblical passage in Matthew 12.25 that states, “every Kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Wilson, 1995, p.188). This passage speaks on the wisdom of coming from a united front when forging any path into one’s future as either an individual or a society. By acting as a “team” the idea is that medical professionals from different backgrounds, beliefs, and medical opinions come together, hear all the facts, and then decide on a plan. An unsuccessful medical team results when people refuse to start with the same set of facts because they don’t accommodate one’s belief system.
Muhammad––the founder of Islam–– told his followers that we are “to one another like a building whose parts support one another” (Wilson, 1995, p.189). Within the body, each cell’s health affects the health of the organ, and each organ’s health affects the functioning of all the other organs. When each part of the body is strong, it can’t be blown away in the storms of life. This is also true when people work together to solve problems. To not be alone and broken, we must unite in a way where each member of the team plays a role in the solution, just as every organ plays a role in sustaining life. When we do this, we achieve a sort of harmony in life and within our interactions together.
Individuals that live in a balanced way create a harmonious society, and a healthy society supports a better world. In this way, to transform our suffering into growth, we must live like the Taoist that “honors balance above all” (Harvey, 1997, p.17). The Mahavagga (a Buddhist text cited in Eliade, 1967, p.573) states that the Buddha proclaimed “birth is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering.” Buddhists believe that to release oneself from suffering and create balance, one must take the middle path that avoids the extremes of life; in other words, balance lays between extremes. This does not mean that there is no debate or differences amongst people that come together to form solutions, or that there isn’t, at times, conflict within yourself about what path to take, but this discussion should lead to a “middle way.” A way that incorporates all the extremes of self or others into a united way that incorporates our differences into our unity.
The Unification Church’s Sun Myung Moon text states that “beauty arises from the fusion of extremes into a harmonious oneness” (Wilson, 1995, p.116). When we absorb ourselves too much into one kind of energy, we risk a weakened, disordered state. It would be like a human trying to live on just water year round. This same principle applies to societal differences in religion, nationalities and our belief systems. It is the place we find within the fusion of extremes that brings about the most beauty in the self and within the world around us.
In my own personal journey, I ran across many different belief systems about which healing modalities were good and which were bad. The truth was much less simple. I found that, usually, it wasn’t about healing methods being effective or ineffective, but about when and what what circumstances I could implement a healing modality so that it did work effectively. For instance, while getting nutrition degree, I saw students that wanted to label herbs as the only “good medicine” while western medicine was just “profit driven and full of side effects.” This just was not the complete truth. Instead there is a middle way where there is a place for both. In my care, I would not use herbs to treat a bacterial infection due to a high risk of going septic, but I do use herbs to prevent bacterial infections so common in my disease. The phenomena of trying to quickly label something as good or bad without understanding it happens in religion, spirituality, and different political or national beliefs. Rather than coming up with easy generalizations that diminish the truth of something, we must strive to see differences as unique stones that compose a single path towards a common goal.
In terms of healthcare goals, the chronically ill often remind their different care team members that we all want the same goal when differences of opinions on how to move forward start to become the focus of care. In global matters, we, as citizens, must remind our leaders of the common goals when differences become the focus. Society can learn from the chronically ill that health lies in the balance between all the different forces that it is composed of, and that the way there can incorporate many different belief systems as long as we start from a place of having the shared goal. Chronic Illness teaches that when the body suffers, every other aspect of life suffers as well. In our interconnected state, we will only be strong when the environment that supports us is strong. As we find balance within ourselves as individuals, within society, and within the world at large, let us work to incorporate the wisdom of the ages and all the leaders of the different sectors of life to chart a path forward. As the chronically ill have learned, this is how you survive a weakened state and find one’s way back to balance.
Harvey, A. (2000). The essential mystics: the souls journey into truth.
San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
Eliade, M. (1967). Essential sacred writings from around the world. New York: Harper & Row.
Wilson, A. (1995). World scripture: a comparative anthology of sacred texts. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.
Shapiro, R. M. (2017). The world wisdom bible: a new testament for a global spirituality. Nashville: Turner Publishing Company.
Steward, L. (2009). World Scriptures Volume Two: Guidelines for a Unity and Diversity Global Civilization. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse.