The Ongoing Battle To Find Meaning In Illness

14/09/2016 11:03 | Updated 15 September 2016

For many people, an important part of any healing process involves finding meaning in what has happened. Once the almost novel aspect of the change has occurred, the afflicted is left with the consequences; some of which are obvious immediately, others revealed much later on.

In my early stages post stroke, both in my own mind and in the conversation of others, there was a lot of talk of 'why' and 'how' and what it would all mean for the future. On a good day it felt like almost a 'privilege' to suffer this as both Doctor and human being due to the potential chance to gain a deeper understanding on what it is like to be sick myself, and experience taking a few steps closer to appreciating my own mortality. On lesser days it was a terrifying and confusing mess of which I felt unsure of anything; would it happen again, would I ever return to who I was before, what have I lost?

As with anything in life, whenever there is a change there must be gain but also loss. Achievement or failure, interestingly, take something from us but also takes us to a new place. Creation and destruction seem to walk hand-in-hand.

Yet the battle to find meaning in this change is so much harder, I believe, due to modern cultural conditions.

The modern western and capitalist world is built on people having and spending money. In order for this to happen we need to be persuaded to part with what we've earned. In modern society it is practically impossible to pass any significant length of time without being exposed to some sort of advert or other telling us what we do not have. What then follows is the challenge of having to deal with a subtly imposed sense of inadequacy on us for not owning it. In order for commercial companies to thrive, it does not work for them to only sell a 'one off' product. They must keep trading and keep us wanting to buy the latest 'upgrade.'

In the same way we are encouraged to always better ourselves at every opportunity. To have more money, a superior work/life balance, be fitter, be happier, travel more, have more friends and maybe even seek fame. Our lives are presented to us in terms of being a constant process of necessary improvement. As though what we have and who we are is never quite good enough. That person and status we aspire to is waiting just around the next corner.

In a world like this, gratitude for the small things in life is almost impossible. If what we have is never enough, how can we ever have the capacity to be thankful for it?

This has a profound impact on us in two ways. The first results in having little idea how good we have it; by being healthy (if we are), having people who love us (if we do), and having food to eat (if there is). It is as though these are to be expected. If we are extra fortunate, then we may do a job that we enjoy to support this. The second is that our mission for building ourselves into the best we can be, results in a warped perspective on what we are given. If what comes our way is not part of our grand plan, then we do not want it and feel angry at the indignity that we might have received it.

On some of my own dark days during the early stages of the fallout from what had happened, I found it very hard to see beyond my own borders. I could hardly think, felt tired and sluggish, struggled to remember basic tasks and to concentrate for any particular length of time. I felt hard done by and irritated that this had happened. Sure it had potential to be useful for me and my life, but these only felt like hollow words that I could woodenly recite to others when asking what it was all like.

However, when you are ill or struck down, something begins to shift about the way you look at life and other people. In your own vulnerable and essentially humbled state, you begin to look at other people's situations differently. In feeling much closer to your own fragility, it becomes much harder to have so many certain opinions about things as you realise that you have no more answers than anyone else. We are all just trying to get by; some methods work, some don't.

Some behaviours get us so far, then stop being useful. It becomes much easier to start listening to people without judgment as you realise you might not be any better in their situation. At the same time you appreciate the importance to prioritise concentrating on only sharing experiences and simply learning from each other without any further desire to always find answers. The questions of life and how we all face them become much more fortifying than any particular solution we may have briefly stumbled upon.

Could then our lives and lived experiences be seen from another perspective, perhaps one of usefulness for others? If the meaning of what we experience cannot necessarily be found for us, maybe it is for those around us. Maybe we exist for each other as much as we do for ourselves? If so, then sharing our struggles then takes on a much greater value.


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