So having read Arthur’s Call and as part of my current grappling, I’m going to go back to something I wrote in 1998 as part of my Ministerial Training. At that time, I had encountered a couple of spells of pretty rubbish health problems and this came out of my coming to terms with them and their profound effects in my life – which until that time, I had pretty much managed to dance around and pretend didn’t matter – until the day I realized they did and the bottom fell out of my world.
It’s funny how God prepares you, for something even more shattering and heart-breaking that is to come. I’m sharing it, largely unchanged, in the hope that it will remind me and may help someone else. It will come in three parts.
“If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything” seems at first to be a very positive statement to make. A similar attitude is shown by expectant parents, when asked about hopes and dreams for their child reply, “we don’t mind as long as it is fit and healthy”. These frequently uttered comments show an attitude of being aware that possessions and material gain are of relative unimportance when compared to being fit and well. Yet they do leave the question of what value there is in life that is not a healthy one. If having your health means that you have everything, does this by definition mean that if you do not have ‘full health’, you have nothing? Is living with suffering and physical or mental difficulties necessarily second best to supposed full health? Is human worth directly related to physical functioning?
To hear that you have a medical problem, for which there may be relief, but no cure, can be hard news to take, even more so if there is little relief available. It may even be that there is a cure, but that in itself will bring further physical repercussions. For those faced with this situation our response to the consequences, and how they effect the rest of our life, can depend on how we assimilate them into our personhood. Is it less than ideal, a total disaster, or can it actually be an equally acceptable way of being? Can there be a position of worth and wholeness within what may appear to be brokenness?
Perhaps the first question to ask is, define ‘normal’ or what do we mean by ‘health’? Is each individual so focused on ‘what I am is normal’, that society perceives anyone who does not reach or maintain expected norms as somehow lacking. Or is that a feeling that someone struggling to come to terms with a continuing illness places upon themselves?
Society places a great emphasis on health, as many advertising campaigns seize on. To be young, active, and preferably attractive is held up as the ideal, re-enforcing feelings of failure in those who do not make that supposed “standard”. There are also many other subtle pressures of ‘expectation’, by friends, family or employers that compound feelings of being not as good as the rest. To constantly question our perceptions of what ‘normal’ is, or is not, continually challenges our assumptions without belittling those who do have real difficulties in life. This is subtly different to the approach of ‘well everyone is handicapped in some way!’ which can appear very trite, and shows a total lack of appreciation of what a real handicap in life is like.
With the advent of great medical advances in the last few decades, society has been lulled into feeling that there must be a cure for everything. Whatever you have wrong can quite literally be made better by one of the medical profession. It can come as quite a shock to discover first of all that you too are not immune to illness, and that there may not necessarily be anything anyone can do to make it better. There may be relief for symptoms, but no cure. The only way forward then is to decide how you are going to come to terms with that. This is not about facing death – that might actually appear as relief. It is about the struggle to live as we find ourselves to be, not in temporary illness or incapacitation, but an ongoing condition that needs some, if not much, re-assessment of life. This will mean taking on board what we are and are not, and finding a way of living with it. To come to an acceptance of what has happened, and the damage we carry with us.
This may take a major re-alignment on understanding – health does not just mean the absence of physical disability. There is far more to health than ‘usual’ physical functioning. Jurgen Moltmann puts health into a new dimension when he says,
It is not a condition of my body, but the power of the soul to cope with the conditions of that body.
Likewise the World Health Organisation defines health as,
A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely an absence of disease and infirmity.
Health has equally to do with self-understanding, and being able to incorporate life events into ourselves, with honesty and courage. When faced with trauma, specifically here ill-health, after the initial shock, there are several ways to respond. Some of these will lead to moving on with the news and awareness, and bring a level of wholeness without health. Others may totally incapacitate our very being.
Tomorrow I will consider What is Healing?