On the benefits of being sick
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
I was going to write “blessings” of being sick but realized that despite conviction, I just don’t feel it.
Pretty darn sick, with a fever and a painful cough, just at the start of the semester when I have to teach; just as the hot weather broke and the cooler, less difficult running weather has come in and I began to ramp up my miles; just as I started feeling the surge of enthusiasm I always get at the start of autumn when the forest becomes a mystical, multi-colored playhouse for athletes who prefer to run the trails and do pull-ups on the branches of trees over the bars in a gym or city park. At one level it’s just a disappointment to be sick now.
Yet the benefits are more than just making lemonade out of lemons. Maybe they are blessings.
Illness is always a reminder of our mortality. It is a reminder of death. I’ve had plenty of that recently. My father died an agonizing death from a brain tumor four years ago. My mother is suffering from advanced dementia in a nursing home and requires 24 hour care, her experience of life diminished in ways that are terrifying to contemplate. My wife’s two grandmothers died in rapid succession this past year, as did her uncle, of lung cancer. My own only uncle died two years ago when he most likely had a heart attack and crashed his engineless glider plane in Italy.
Illness and death, that is the starting point. That could be a bad thing. Depressing, frightening, and ultimately cruel and unjust. Very few people seem to have earned their terrible suffering, and those who actually have led blameworthy lives all too often seem to escape the worst of the worst. None of this is terribly inspiring.
Yet the visceral reminder of the impermanence of my body, of my life, is also undeniably a good thing.
To begin with, the reminder is a reminder of reality. Escape from reality—a pursuit that has been taken to unprecedented extremes in our technologically overweening modernity—is always dysfunctional and can’t have a good result. The Buddha gave up a life of opulence as a prince because he realized that his well-meaning father had been hiding the essential facts of life from him—that living means facing the realities of old age, sickness and death. This was the starting point of his journey of discovery and transformation.
Facing up to reality allows for the possibility of transformation. Denial and escape do not, and yet at the end of the day death is still waiting and no amount of video games, work, wealth, food, sex, TV or any other distraction is going to change that. Nor will any superfoods, exercise routines or meditation practice.
A reminder of death felt in the body also changes the mood of the mind. The mind becomes more somber. Deeper priorities are more clearly visible. They are within grasp. It also helps that the body must slow down. I have been in bed all day. I don’t feel well enough to go to the university, to work out, to do anything but lie, rest, think, meditate and write a little. I have few distractions.
Not old, I also am no longer young. Any illness could be a harbinger of something more serious—and one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe in ten years, maybe in twenty, it will be.
Am I ready to go? Have I transformed my mind? Am I taking my dharma practice seriously—really seriously? Do I get it? Do I really get it that my time is limited and this is my one chance to practice, to make wholesome impressions on my mind stream, to change?
Now is the time to redouble my commitment to the path the Buddha laid for us, which includes, vitally, the ecumenical path of cultivating compassion, empathy, truthfulness, contrition and a host of other virtues that Buddhism has in common with all other major spiritual traditions, all of whose leading lights have been able to see through to the fundamental reality that a vital ethics must undergird the good life and the spiritual life. Now is the time, and this uncomfortable illness reminds me that now means now.
Compassion might be the grandest virtue of all—the key that controls or opens the door to all other virtues. Can we feel the pain of our fellow sentient beings?
The capacity for this kind of gross physical suffering is something we share with the other animals and obviously all other people.
When I think of the sheer torture of animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses and the extraordinary suffering, mental and physical, of the people of Syria, Yemen and all other war-torn countries and regions, how does that shape my view of my own suffering?
I don’t mean, can I grin and bear it because others have it far worse. I mean how does the far greater suffering of others change the depth of my own suffering—how does it actually change it? Remarkably quite a bit.
Not that I become indifferent to my own suffering, but that I can sincerely think of my suffering as an offering to all those whose endure far greater harms and combine it with a prayer that one day those sufferings may end. I feel less troubled. When I go to sleep tonight my intention is to hold in my mind thoughts of those in great need and pain and send out prayers. I don’t make claims to having great compassion. Only to aspiring to have it.
The more direct realization of the reality of death also reminds me of what I love. More specifically, who. I have four children and a wife I love very much. I have my mother and a handful of close friends, most of whom I have had in my life since I was a child.
Are there things I haven’t told them that I would want them to know before I die? Do they all really know just how much I care about them, how deeply I love them? Have I been impatient (yes) and unthinking (unfortunately yes) and wouldn’t it be much better for me and for them if I worked harder on reducing and one day eradicating those qualities? And if I only get a little bit down that road, isn’t that better than where I am now? And won’t I be more ready to die without regrets for making the effort?
Finally, getting ill provides a moment to think about how it came about in the first place. Not all infections are due to one’s own actions. Viruses and bacteria are viruses and bacteria. But we do sometimes make ourselves more vulnerable. Chances are we do so because we are unwise and distracted. Sleeping less because we are watching stupid things on YouTube. Eating something brown and processed instead of a fresh salad and an orange. Stressing out over trivialities that will soon pass but that seem like urgent at the moment.
Stress, stress, stress—and then death. Is this a good life? What has to change?
Getting sick isn’t fun and as I feel my temperature going up now, in the early evening, I am even more in direct touch with how much it isn’t fun. But I do feel more grounded, more centered and a little more determined to make wise decisions. To spend my time in the most intelligent way I possibly can.
Most of all, having a more immediate, unfiltered appreciation of the fundamental fragility and inevitably short duration of our lives can be an impetus to examine our priorities and strive to become better people, whatever spiritual path we have chosen.