Dr. Jeff Kane: Illness’ silver lining
Dr. Jeff Kane
As you might imagine, I think about illness a lot. Like what is it, after all? An unmitigated tragedy? Divine retribution? A wake-up call? What does it mean? Why do some people get sick more than others, and why in certain ways? And then there’s this one: is there anything good about illness?
I’ve never heard anyone describe cancer, for example, as a picnic, but I have heard people say their cancer eventually did deliver something useful. How can we even imagine silver lining the dark cloud of illness?
We can begin by acknowledging that illness removes us from our daily habits. If we view life as a game, like hockey, then illness yanks us off the ice and into the penalty box, and there we sit observing the game but unable to play. As awful as that feels, our life looks a little different from there. We can see things from outside the game that we don’t notice when we’re embedded in it. In this wider perspective we might see aspects of our life that we’d like to change.
However we claim to recognize our mortality, we’re miraculously able to ignore it … until we get a serious diagnosis. Suddenly we can feel pressed into self-examination. Who am I, after all? How will I spend the rest of what the late poet Mary Oliver calls my “one wild and precious life?” I might review my attitudes and behavior, the love opportunities I’ve missed, atrocious situations I’ve tolerated until now, and where I’ve been wasting my finite energy.
Some people radically change their lives after diagnosis. I’ve seen them form new relationships and drop toxic ones, switch careers, renovate their values. Those are such big shifts, though, that they can be more threatening than even the prospect of dying, so some decide not to change, and that has to be okay, too, since we need to tell our story our way and in our time.
I’m not about to claim illness is any blessing, but it doesn’t have to be an unmixed catastrophe, either. If there is an epiphany or lesson or benefit hidden in it, though, we won’t find it unless we look. That’s one reason why healthcare must encompass more than pills and surgery.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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