February 10, 2022

The Positive Side of Illness.


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A lot of people may wonder why we fall ill. Can’t we always be healthy and happy?

I think there is a general idea, particularly in Western society, that sickness is a kind of aberration, a sort of “mistake” of nature that shouldn’t be there and science and medicine should strive to get rid of or at least drastically reduce.

And this, at least to an extent, is a legitimate end—we should indeed strive to be as happy and content as possible, which is difficult to be when we are sick or suffer from mental disorders like depression or anxiety.

However, as day cannot exist without night, or happiness without sadness, health cannot be in this world without illness. Illness is part of our lot here on earth, and it is often after an illness that we can appreciate fully the beauty of being alive and healthy.

Apart from these general considerations, illness has a precise function—it normally comes to tell us that there is something wrong in our life, whether with our lifestyle, our job, or our relations. When we feel sick, obviously, it makes complete sense to seek help or see a doctor to try to overcome it.

But, first of all, we have to try and understand what that particular physical or mental problem is trying to tell us. If we take an ostrich-like approach and start stuffing ourselves with medicines or other things just to get rid of the symptoms, then we have failed to acknowledge the positive side of the illness—maybe it’s trying to help us avoid worse problems in the future.

Of course, some illnesses may just be accidents and nothing more—I acknowledge that. But sometimes, even those which look like accidents are not really accidents. Perhaps, we were not mindful enough and allowed our immune system to become too weak. I think, in general, modern medicine does not realize this, and all it does is try to get rid of the problem as quickly as possible.

This also reflects the general attitude of our society and the labour market. We are demanded to be productive all the time and do not accept our taking time off to evaluate the problem or perhaps try to overcome it in a more natural and, therefore, slower way than what medicines or surgeries may do. Often, the message that some problems we may try to get across are simply that we are too tired and need to rest, to relax, to go for a walk in the woods or on a beach or along a river.

I remember when I suffered from a strong depression nearly 20 years ago—an extremely dark period in my life. It was hard and I did seek medical and even some psychological help, which did help me in different ways.

Above all, however, having depression made me realize that living in the big city where I was studying and not finding enough time to relax and enjoy life was not good for me, and healing became faster once I left the city and spent a whole year in Southern Spain as part of my language studies.

Having depression taught me a lot. It taught me what my priorities were, how to look after myself better, how to notice the first symptoms of depression, what to do to overcome my symptoms, who my best friends were, and how important and helpful my relations were.

(Transcendental meditation, among other things, helped me a lot. I wish I had more knowledge about other meditation and mindfulness techniques back then; it would have probably helped me to recover faster.)

Having depression was terrible, but it was a good teacher—just like everything and everybody else in life. In particular, I feel the hardest moments are the best teachers because I believe we improve and grow the most through difficulties, rather than the “good” and easy moments.

Any ailment is a signal our body is sending to us. So, what I recommend is this: try to understand what your physical or mental problem is trying to tell you as you try to overcome it. It’s not easy, I know.

We should look at what we were doing before the first symptoms appeared or even try to interpret the symptoms symbolically (for example, skin problems might be related to fear of facing the outside world and what is out there).

It might be simply that you need to do more exercise, eat more healthily, or socialize more. In extreme cases, it may be that you need to change your job or move to a nicer and healthier place to live.

In the latter case, you may not be able to do it straight away, but if you start making some changes in that direction, I’m quite confident your problem could mitigate or at least not recur. Embrace your illness, at least temporarily, before it may be let go.

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