I have been reading “Grace and Grit” by Ken Wilber. Ken is a philosopher, author, teacher and much more. He is often referred to as “the Einstein of consciousness,” I have learned so much by reading /studying just two of his books, “ A Brief History of Everything” and “Integral Psychology”. But this book is not like his others. It is a memoir documenting the journey he and his wife went through as she battled cancer for the last five years of her life. In chapter three, Ken wrote how he and Treya struggled with the big questions of “Why did she get cancer?” and “How did she get cancer?”
He goes on to list eleven different cultural, sub-cultural and/or spiritual mindsets and/or judgments on why a person may develop cancer or suffer from any illness for that matter. He actually put into words and identified many of the ideas that I have read, heard and even entertained over the years. The question of “Why suffering?”, a topic I tackled in a prior post, has been foremost in my consciousness lately, since several family members and friends are going through cancer, are recovering from cancer or have succumbed to cancer. I am going to use my own words to present these ideas, drawing upon my beliefs and conclusions, so bear with me. (note: I merged Ken’s Medical and Scientific points into one.)
#1. Existential: Illness is without meaning. It can take any meaning you wish to give it and you are solely responsible for these choices. We are mortal and illness is part of our finite existence here.
This attitude is the least attractive to me as it implies we are nothing more than a flea or a rock, here today gone tomorrow. Why bother to find meaning in anything. You will soon be gone as though you never existed.
#2. Medical/ Scientific: Illness is a biophysical disorder caused by biophysical factors (virus, trauma, germs, environmental agents, genetic predisposition). There is always a specific cause or cluster of causes. Some of these cause are determined, others are simply random. Nothing psychological or spiritual about it. Alternative treatments are ineffectual. Either way there is no “meaning” to illness, there is only chance or necessity.
Not much different than the preceding point, except you may be able to identify the cause. Overall traditional medicine and cancer research has made great strides in early diagnosis and treatments, but they have yet to definitively answer the big questions of “Why?” and “How?”
#3. Holistic: Illness is a product of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual factors, which cannot be isolated from each other, all are important. Treatment must encompass all aspects. Sometimes this gets translated into a rejection of orthodox medical treatments.
In theory this is a very attractive concept. In practice, not so easy. To truly encompass the holistic approach for the cause and treatment of any illness, you must be open to all possible causes for the illness and all possible treatment options. Some Holistic practitioners are stuck in their specific field of practice and refuse to entertain the possibility that traditional medicine may be the most effective treatment for the patient.
#4. Karma: Illness is the result of negative karma; some sin or non-virtuous action(s) in your past life (lives) is coming to fruition. Can be interpreted as good, since now you will be purged of this past stain on your soul. Just bear your suffering with grace and all will be good for your next incarnation.
This belief system allows you to judge others for whatever sin they may have committed in a past life whenever you encounter suffering and you may also feel absolved of any responsibility to help relieve their pain. It is just another way of saying “Suffering is punishment from God.”
#5. Gnostic: Illness is an illusion. The entire manifest universe is a dream, a shadow and you are free of illness only when you are free from the illusion which we believe is reality. Christian Science teaches a form of this and is known to shun traditional medical diagnosis and treatments.
This is an extreme off-center version of mysticism. I believe it totally discounts the whole physical universe thus the incarnation of Christ in the manifest world is meaningless.
#6. Magical: Illness is retribution because I wished illness on another, so now I’m sick. Or I have tempted fate by having too much happiness and good health, now I’m struck with illness. The latest twist on this concept that it’s all magic is the Law of Attraction.
In this scenario if you become ill that is exactly what you attracted to yourself with the bad energy you put out to the universe. The inference is that if you think bad thoughts, dwell on cancer or other diseases then you will attract them to yourself. Therefore it follows that the opposite must be true. Those with good health are always positive people with only good thoughts and energy. So with this law, again it is your own fault if you are sick. You did it to yourself.
#7. New Age: Illness is a lesson you are giving yourself, something important you have to learn to further your spiritual evolution.
I admit that in the past I have entertained this concept regarding suffering, but now I find that I no longer feel attracted to such esoteric trop. I have heard people use this reasoning when assigning meaning to someone else’s issues, but when you yourself are in the midst of suffering it is very hard to imagine that you or anyone would chose to go through this hell just to learn something. But I do believe that we all try to find the lesson or meaning in our pain, (many times after the fact). This is how we endure and keep our sanity and how we ultimately develop empathy for others who are suffering.
#8. Psychological: Illness is caused by repressed emotions. This idea from pop-psychology has been circulating for the past 50 years or so. In its extreme form it can be viewed as a death wish. Along with this idea comes the belief that one can actually make themselves sick by their attitude, that the mind does control the body, and it is common knowledge that stress does adversely affect one’s health.
I have to admit, that this belief is deeply rooted in my psyche. I’m always assigning some bad emotions or attitudes to myself (or another) when I am injured or get sick. I learned about this mind body connection when I read ‘“Heal Your Body” by Louise Hay over 20 years ago and the theory stuck. I know it is not good to believe this way since the blame for your illness is always placed directly on you. “It’s your fault if you get sick,” and by extension, you also judge others for their suffering. “They must be repressing their anger at their husband/wife/parent and now they are sick,” or “They made themselves sick with worry.”
#9. Christian: Fundamentalist; Illness is a form of punishment from God. This may be in part a carryover from the Old Testament beliefs.
Prosperity Gospel proponents believe in prayer and miracles. “You are healed by your faith. And if you believe and obey God, then you will be blessed with good health and prosperity.” Thus the opposite must be true: “If you are not blessed with good health, then you must not be living in God’s will or maybe you do not have enough faith.”
Roman Catholic tradition teaches that suffering and illness can be good if you offer it up for sinners. It may even be God’s will.
I have outgrown these low level interpretation of Christian Religion. I do not feel any of these beliefs truly represent the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom all Christians profess to be following.
#10. Buddhism: Illness is an inescapable part of the manifest world. Asking why there is illness is like asking why there is air, birth, old age, death. These are just marks of this world which is characterized by impermanence, suffering and selflessness. Our path to enlightenment entails a life of service to others along with purging ourselves of our attachment to material things. Illness and suffering are finally transcended because the entire physical world is transcended either in death or by enlightenment.
This view of life and suffering resonates with me. It perfectly aligns with the teachings and life of Jesus the Christ the one whom I try to follow. Jesus never judged those who were sick, only showed love and compassion when he healed and blessed them. When asked “by whose sin was this man born blind?”, before he healed a blind beggar, Jesus answered “Neither he nor his parents sinned.” [John 9:1-3] By his loving non-judgmental response to suffering humanity, Jesus showed us how we are to live. And with his death he surrendered all and transcended all by returning in a new form, his resurrected glorified body.
So in conclusion it does not matter where you are on the 10 possible belief paradigms above regarding the why and how of human suffering. We are all just trying to make sense of our lives here on this earth. I believe it is not for us to know all the reasons we or our loved ones have cancer or any disease. Illness and suffering are a part of life. And when illness comes, and it will, we must go on living until we don’t. We should try not to give in to fear while holding onto the knowledge that we will come through this, either on this side of the veil or the other.