Osho — ‘A certain darkness is needed to see the stars.’
As I reflect on chronic illness and my healing journey over the last 3.5 years, it occurs to me that I would not trade it for the world. But also, I don’t ever want to go through it again!
Chronic illness at its worst, causes almost constant and incessant suffering. Where healthy people live their lives feeling good and getting sick perhaps 2-5% of the time, it can be the polar opposite for sick people, who may experience a feeling of wellness only very rarely.
Most people want to eliminate or reduce pain and discomfort of any kind, and for the most part, are able to. Got a headache? Take some Ibuprofen. Got a virus? take some cold and flu tablets. Having a tooth out? have your gums numbed. Got emotional pain? Here, take some anti-depressants. Feeling stressed? have a drink, have a whole bottle. That’s the society we have been raised in, which makes it all the worse when you experience something that has no quick or easy fix, something that doesn’t go away.
Nothing is much more nightmarish than suffering in your own body without relief. This can be so frightening that we immediately add anxiety and panic to the mix, and like petrol on a fire it all escalates into absolute horror, but you can’t live in permanent horror! at some point your challenge will be to separate the fear from the actual problem, then you have to deal with the problem, and if you can’t fix it, you’ll need to find a way to manage it and live alongside it, befriend it and create a new language around it. That is one of the most intensive self-growth lessons you’ll ever have to learn. The most common unhelpful language I have found myself using around illness is the phrase: ‘It’s robbed me…’. ‘I was supposed to see a friend today but I had to cancel, I was robbed of that.’ ‘This illness robbed me of the new career I was embarking on’ or ‘I’ve been robbed of the opportunity to keep plans and be reliable’.
I’ve been sick for quite a while now and it’s only recently I actually was able to identify this limiting belief. As long as I’m believing the story that I’m being robbed, then i’m never going to see the possible benefits of my situation, so reframing this particular thought process has been quite a challenge for me.
It occurred to me this morning while in the shower, that gratitude has many levels. When you’ve been immersed in the darkness, how much more welcome is the light. I thought I was grateful for my health before I got sick, but now I realise that my gratitude was immature because of my limited life experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that, my gratitude was no less meaningful and valid, but it was just the beginning.
The harder life got, the deeper and more vivid the gratitude when I got some relief, and to my surprise, the gratitude during the very midst of suffering was also profound. In fact, gratitude was a multifaceted diamond. I was grateful to feel well, i was grateful to know illness, I was grateful for the help i received from others, I was grateful for the way i could help others, I was grateful for the new ways I could connect with the suffering of others, I was grateful for much simpler things, like a good nights sleep or a quiet early morning cup of tea. I was grateful for simplicity and a stilling of time which used to race by but now it was silent and slow, and i was grateful I was mortal and that in death suffering might one day be relieved, if that was the road i was headed down. I made friends with my mortality, as well as my immortality, the part of me that was not my ailing body, the spirit inside of me that was able to step back and feel compassion for my own situation, and in the middle of it all I connected with God in a way I never could before, complete and utter reliance on His provision when I could no longer provide for myself.
Do you know what happened to me while I was sick? I met the man of my dreams and we got married. I became more creative than I had ever been. I honeymooned overseas. I have my own home and no longer rent and we have two amazing dogs, I made a new and incredible close friend, I was blessed financially in ways that could only be described as absolutely miraculous and I also visited dark places of unbearable suffering where I wanted my life to end.
Chronic illness has transformed my perspective on life and enabled me to grow in ways I couldn’t have grown without it. In that darkness, i really did see the stars.
I think this Pema Chodron quote sums it up nicely:
“Life is glorious, but life is also wretched. It is both. Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energies us. We feel connected. But if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction. On the other hand, wretchedness–life’s painful aspect–softens us up considerably. Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose–you’re just there. The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.”
― Pema Chödrön