Illness and Shame

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I’m reading this book of Norwegian folk beliefs.  It says in there that illness, especially particular kinds of illness are signs of moral degeneration in the household.  

Also, we’ve been watching one of the Great Courses on important books throughout history and the lecturer, J.R. Fears was talking about the Book of Job.  The premise is that Job is a perfectly virtuous man, and Satan says to God, “Well it’s easy to be full of virtue when everything’s going well.” and God says “Job is so good he’ll be virtuous no matter what.” and then God sets about taking everything from Job, killing his children and his livestock then giving him a plague of painful, suppurating sores.  Job’s peers come visit and Bildad the Shu-ite says, “Can you think of what you did wrong to receive this punishment?” “You must’ve done something wrong.”


Even the idea of Karma supports this idea…that when things go all to heck it’s a punishment visited on us for our sins, even if we don’t know what those sins are.


That’s a lot of heavy weight to carry on top of having to deal with the health problem itself.  I wonder if we could completely separate the state of our health from the idea that there are forces beyond our understanding that are punishing us for some reason?


We live in a time when these notions about our good health being payment for our continued virtuousness are no longer spoken out loud, but I can’t help thinking they’re still there.  In fact we are so circumspect in our avoidance of accusation against the afflicted that we talk about health as though it were completely beyond our control. Enter Genetics. Now if someone suffers any manner of health concern genetics can be summoned as the cause.


I’d like to propose a middle ground.


I don’t believe your health situation is any kind of reflection on your state of goodness and virtue.  I don’t believe your health situation now has been determined by the sins of your past life, and I don’t believe your health and life span have been predetermined by your genetics.


We will all have unique challenges.  


Some people have much greater challenges.  Either they have a genetic predisposition to a condition, or a temperamental predisposition to a condition.  They may have had a challenge in their formative years that they have to address to reach their own personal potential.  There is a tendency to compare ourselves with others (“This is so easy for Sam…what’s wrong with me that I can’t do it?”), but each situation is unique.  It is not a mark of shame that we encounter some challenge to our health, and it is not something to accept as being beyond our control.


Within every health challenge, there is something that we can have an effect on.


The trick is to recognize it.  Straining against the things that are outside of one’s sphere of influence won’t result in helpful outcomes.  It will waste energy and cause frustration. Looking for something within our sphere of influence, no matter how small or how daunting, that we can affect will help us move toward our best future.


I’d like to offer a couple tools to help on that search.


The first is Compassion.  By compassion I mean the will to see clearly one’s mistakes, one’s imperfections and even sometimes one’s own ugliness, and to forgive ourselves and open to receiving love anyway.


The second is Curiosity. A lot of pain and suffering comes from fear, and a lot of fear is fear of the unknown.  Curiosity is the drive simply to turn the unknown into the known. It is a major antidote to fear, and by extension a major antidote to pain.

I’ll be saying more about curiosity in future articles.


To recap the essence of what I just said:
  • Bring to light whether there are any beliefs about being punished.
  • Access Compassion.
  • Accept that there are things beyond your control.
  • Look around for things within your control.
  • Use Curiosity to gain control over those things.

I’m curious…how does this set with you?  Am I coming off too preachy or too obscure and esoteric?  Would you rather hear something more concrete about rotator cuff disorders?  It’s just that I really feel strongly that a big part of the healing process isn’t just about the knitting together of tissue.  A big part of healing is the inner game. This is the inner game that I’m talking about.

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