When I was a little girl growing up in a rabidly catholic family of seven, my mother had a standard response to anything bad that happened to her children (like even just stubbing a toe on the coffee table leg as we skipped across the living room floor):
“See? God punishes bad children!”
Under her tutelage, my siblings and I learned a couple of important life lessons:
1. that we were basically bad children (this fits right in with the catholic church’s doctrine of original sin, so likely made perfect sense to us at the time), and
2. that God must be very, very busy keeping track of every opportunity to personally administer the punishment that my sibs and I so richly deserved.
When children like us grow up and get diagnosed with, oh, let’s say – heart disease, it’s proof positive that we’re just getting what we had coming.
Turns out that my mother’s philosophy was completely in keeping with what author Ken Wilber describes in his 1991 book, Grace and Grit. In this book, Wilber discusses, among other more weighty things, the meanings that various cultural and healing traditions attribute to serious illness.
He writes, for example, that people are “condemned to meaning“ – condemned to creating values and judgements:
“It is not enough to know that I have a disease, but I also have to know WHY I have this disease. Why me? What does it mean? What did I do wrong? How did this happen?
“I need, in other words, to attach some sort of meaning to my illness. And whenever illness strikes, our society is on hand with ready-made meanings and judgements through which the individual seeks to understand the illness.”
Your unique personality, as well as those societal influences, can also impact how you’ll try to make sense of a significant diagnosis like heart disease. Consider, for example, the eight distinct ways in which patients and their family members might view this diagnosis based on their individual coping strategy tools as defined by the late Dr. Zbigniew Lipowski of the University of Toronto.
And meanwhile, here are some examples, courtesy of Ken Wilber*, of society’s responses to our diagnoses:
1. Judeo-Christian: The fundamentalist message of my mother and many recovering catholics: “Illness is basically a punishment from God for some sort of sin.” The worse the illness, the more unspeakable the sin must have been.
2. New Age: Illness is a lesson. You are giving yourself this disease because there is something important you have to learn from it in order to continue your spiritual growth and evolution. Mind alone causes illness, and mind alone can cure it.
3. Medical: Illness is fundamentally a biophysical disorder, caused by biophysical factors (from viruses to trauma to genetic predisposition to environmental triggering agents). You needn’t worry about psychological or spiritual treatments for most illnesses, because such alternative treatments are usually ineffectual and may actually prevent you from getting the proper medical attention you need.
4. Karma: Illness is the result of negative karma; that is, some non-virtuous past actions are now coming to fruition in the form of a disease. The disease is “bad” in the sense that it represents past non-virtue; but it is “good” in the sense that the disease process itself represents the burning up and the purifying of the past misdeed; it’s a purgation, a cleansing.
5. Psychological: As Woody Allen once put it, “I don’t get angry; I grow tumors instead.” The idea is that, at least in pop psychology, repressed emotions cause illness. The extreme form: illness as death wish.
6. Holistic: Illness is a product of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual factors, none of which can be isolated from the others, and none of which can be ignored. Treatment must involve all of these dimensions (although in practice this often translates into a resistance towards orthodox treatments, even when they might help).
7. Buddhist: Illness is an inescapable part of the manifest world; asking why there is illness is like asking why there is air. Birth, old age, sickness, and death – these are the marks of this world, all of whose phenomena are characterized by impermanence, suffering, and selflessness. Only in enlightenment, in the pure awareness of nirvana, is illness finally transcended, because then the entire phenomenal world is transcended as well.
8. Magical: Illness is retribution. “I deserve this because I wished So-and-so would die.” Or, “If too many good things happen to me, something bad has to happen.” And so on.
9. Existential: Illness itself is without meaning. Accordingly, it can take any meaning you choose to give it, and you are solely responsible for these choices. Men and women are finite and mortal, and the authentic response is to accept illness as part of one’s finitude even while imbuing it with personal meaning.
10. Scientific: Whatever the illness is, it has a specific cause or cluster of causes. Some of these causes are determined, others are simply random or due to pure chance. Either way, there is no “meaning” to illness, there is only chance or necessity.
* Ken Wilber, Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber, Shambhala Press, 1991.
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about sharing – and not sharing – details of a serious health crisis in my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press). You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).