In more than thirty years of living with chronic illness countless practitioners in multiple fields, teachers, employers, friends and even random strangers have asked me some version of this question: can you imagine yourself or your life without this condition?
The question is asked as if it has the power to change things.
It is asked as if casting a spell, conjuring the imagined self.
It is asked as if making an offering to some unseen force, as a talisman against having one’s freedom and personal agency drained away.
It is asked as if staking a claim against limitation and frailty.
It is asked as if we are all bound by its power – as if the simple act of imagining something pleasant and fulfilling for ourselves compels us to commit our lives to it.
It is asked as if “the condition” is not natural – as if the only valid life, the only authentic self, is the one I can imagine, definitely not the one I am living with and certainly not the one defined by limitation.
It is asked as if there is a choice.
But there isn’t. Not really.
There are plenty of options. There are always plenty of options. Health care and treatment options. Life strategy and symptom management options. Employment, schooling or volunteer options. Even the options have options. Because to the truly empowered individual (even if ill or disabled), doors can be opened, paths can be forged, support systems can be built – from scratch if necessary.
But there is no real choice inherent in the question. It is not a question of curiosity or of exploration. No, it is one of instruction. It offers direction, not choice.
I know this because no-one ever asked me: can you imagine yourself or your life without the ever-present obligation to seek & attain improvement within your condition?
It points to the only path this culture offers, the path of imagining the life I want to live and investing in that dream. The path of hope and possibilities. The path of living fully and courageously. To seek improvement (transformation, freedom, realization) is the key to truly living. Therein lies the genuine magic, the real power of living an authentic life. Never settle. Pursue your dreams, follow your passions and grow. Always. Live.
So while the question pretends to extend a choice, it really speaks of ultimatums. Seek improvement or suffer the consequences of not truly living. And let’s be clear, these outcomes, should I experience them, are entirely of my own design and making.
Because suffering the consequences is what happens to people who choose not to truly live. It’s what happens to people who refuse to try everything, who fail to reach for their greatest potential, who give up.
The thing is, the consequences of not truly living are pretty intense. The ones society warns about are difficult and frightening. Isolation, financial dependence and/or insecurity, weakness, boredom, pain, deterioration, emptiness, loss, lack of hope and fulfillment and dreams dying everywhere one might care to look. This list doesn’t even include the monotony of simply getting through the day with as much peace and dignity intact as possible or living with symptoms which, despite all effort, remain beyond control.
But there are other consequences to not truly living. Ones this culture has no stories for. Ordinariness, restraint, uncertainty, patience, smallness, naturalness, obedience, vulnerability, humbleness, limitation, solitude, awe, yielding, grief, sacrifice and the sudden, startling and earth-shaking knowing that one’s dreams and desires just aren’t that important.
I know because I finally collapsed into the embrace of these consequences. I have spent more than two years slowly courting them – all of them. And I have not yet even begun to know life deeply. While I have learned to call some of them by their true names, I have not yet learned their stories.
Can you imagine yourself or your life without the ever-present obligation to seek & attain improvement? Probably not, because to do so is to imagine yourself not truly living. But perhaps we can begin to imagine together that there are wiser, more enriching, paths than the one marked “truly living.”