In our culture, we tend to relate to illness and dying according to how we perceive the impact they have on our personal freedom and fulfillment. Whether one is in denial, engaged in a long and courageous battle, living fully, defying the odds, triumphing over or succumbing to limitation, letting go, giving up, gone too soon or ready to go, living in a state of acceptance and surrender, struggling, suffering or just muddling through, our culture tends to perceive these experiences in terms that are relative to the individual and her or his potential.
Illness & Dying as Threat
Anything other than robust health and vitality is an adversary. It is a diminishing force that threatens the authentic expression of one’s self and life. The primary responsibility, therefore, is to protect the true self, to ensure that it survives or even thrives. Bodily limitations, and the physical concerns of illness or dying, should not be allowed to define or restrict personal identity or expression. Ideally, by continuing to exist despite all losses and indignities one’s self, and therefore one’s life, courageously defies any state of non-health.
Illness & Dying as Purification
Any experience of non-health is an opportunity for the most authentic self and life to be revealed. In meeting each bodily limitation with authenticity and commitment, one’s true life purpose gradually shines through. Worldly concerns serve as the crucible in which the self forges its highest intentions and reaches its greatest expression.
I often confront these assumptions, in their own right. However, while reflecting on them the other day, I noticed something. They depend on the idea that there is a steady internal presence of The Self that can and should prevail.
Both of these assumptions about illness and dying depend on a deeper one: Selfhood. Not simply the belief in ourselves as individuals and in the power of the self, nor a more esoteric interpretation of the self as soul. Selfhood is a way of knowing and understanding ourselves. In this society, our individual lives tell the story of The Self. Our lives are a way for The Self to become more of itself, developing and growing in authenticity and purpose until ideally it makes a contribution to the whole.
As a result, experiences – especially primal ones like illness and dying, are plot points in the story of The Self. They are challenges and catalysts within the hero’s journey.
But what if Selfhood wasn’t our cultural way of knowing and understanding ourselves and what our lives are for? What might illness and dying mean if our way of knowing and understanding ourselves and our lives were rooted in a different soil?
What follows is my best first attempt to wonder about these things. The truth is, it’s quite difficult for me to imagine what knowing and understanding myself and my life might be like if it weren’t rooted in Selfhood.
Instead of telling the story of The Self …
… my life tells the story of Community. In this way of knowing and understanding, illness and dying might be ways of knitting our culture and society together. Dependency, weakness and vulnerability are the means by which we learn to take care of each other and experience that great privilege. They are valued and honoured. Illness and dying are deeply shared experiences, rather than relative and individual. Engendered into the community through ritual, story and rites of passage they are anticipated and needed parts of life.
… my life tells the story of Earth. In this way of knowing and understanding, illness and dying might show us how to be from here. Not spiritually in the world, but physiologically, good and truly, of it. They teach us how to be born from, live bound with and die towards the planet. Illness and dying are not the outcome of sin or exile or a way to find connection with a remote spiritual home-place. Instead, they are wholesome and awesome expressions of our being at home here.
… my life tells the story of Family. In this way of knowing and understanding, illness and dying might be ways of making us heirs and ancestors. They can make and transmit legacy and meaning along generational lines. How we practice them creates an imprint, shapes a path, for others to follow. Illness and dying are integral and purposeful parts of family culture.
… my life tells the story of Grief: the practice of honouring limitation and finite existence. In this way of knowing and understanding, illness and dying are bringers of legitimate, meaningful and needed outcomes. They are teachers of how life really is, what humans really are and what is asked of us here on this planet. They are givers of humanity. We are the receivers of that blessings.