How to Turn Prejudice About Your Illness Into Purpose and Power
“Though your body may be pennies, your spirit can be gold.” – Craig Maupin, “The Search”
Many readers of this forum undoubtedly are familiar with the struggle that often runs parallel to the challenges of living with a chronic condition and its associated symptoms. It is the struggle of encountering misconceptions, misunderstandings, ignorance and prejudices in your environment. Sadly, in my counseling work with the chronically ill I get to hear these painful experiences all too often.
For a healthy person, being confronted with illness brings home the fact that life is fragile, unpredictable and finite. Now, in order to keep painful, uncomfortable and fearful emotions outside of our awareness, it is human nature to employ psychological defense mechanisms. Repression, projection, rationalization and denial are just a few examples of this. Others find refuge in rigid convictions, dogma and religious fervor. As a result, the fear, anger and discomfort associated with encountering illness and disability can be overridden by offering over-optimistic Pollyanna comments, tactless comparisons, ignorant opinions and fundamentalist judgments.
Probably the most painful of those reactions is when there is the implication that surely, you have failed somewhere in your life, otherwise you would (still) be in good health, right?
As we know, long-term stress and a persistent unhealthy lifestyle can indeed be cause for serious health problems. Most chronic illnesses however, and disability, have as their cause hereditary dispositions, accidents, environmental pathological agents out of our control, or their cause is as yet unexplained in physiological terms.
The most cruel and damaging judgments are those that claim there is a spiritual weakness at the foundation of one’s illness. The opinions that sick people are “sinners,” are being “punished” for their spiritual weaknesses and could find healing if they “just turn to God” have been around since ancient times, and found their strongest expression during the reign of the church during the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, even now the infirm, the disabled and the chronically ill are all too often subject to what is called spiritual condemnation.
My own sadness and anger at this social phenomenon have motivated me to write this article. From my personal and professional experience I know that, although we know the very act of asking “Why me?” can be a deadly trap, our shame and guilt can still make that question give us sleepless nights.
If we direct our search for an answer to that question into a past, we fall into that trap indeed. Because that search implies that somehow, by whatever means, shortcomings or failings we have brought our condition upon ourselves.
Right now though, I would invite us to turn that around. We can do this by asking instead: What if the reason for my fate is not the result of something, but a stepping-off point? Is it possible that I have the ability and the power to give reason to my fate and in so doing, I decide on its meaning? And if that possibility exists, how can I realize that?
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl
This then, for me, is the purpose, living with an impairment: my condition may be a given, but its reason and purpose are not. Instead, that reason and purpose (the answer to “Why me?”) are to be shaped by me by the manner in how I live with what is given.
In this, we can find strength and inspiration from countless biographies of those who lived an honorable and empowered life, not in spite of their illness or disability, but because of it. In fact, rather than a so-called spiritual weakness, I would propose that those whose lives are themed by a chronic illness or disability are the strong in spirit precisely because they still make a life of it.
Photo by Arjan Bogaers