Jun 032017

“Our current view of infectious illness in children is that these episodes are caused by unseen viruses and bacteria that invade us, overwhelm our immune systems, and should be prevented, avoided, or gotten rid of as quickly and as aggressively as possible. In other words, our philosophy of illness pretends that these episodes of sickness are more or less unrelated chance episodes and there is no good outcome from being sick.” – Tom Cowan, MD

I’m certain I’m not alone in wanting to avoid getting sick, or hurry along whatever discomfort arises. But perhaps like me, you’ve had the opportunity to get sick when you didn’t want to, when you tried everything to prevent it, or else you stayed sick much longer than you were “willing” to or wanted to believe you “needed” to be. As Dr. Cowan points out, this reluctance / fear of illness is widespread, and certainly makes the experience of being sick that much harder to bear. But what if illness serves a purpose?

In an earlier post I wrote that pain clearly serves a purpose; it lets us know when something is amiss. Where we get into trouble is by making the pain wrong, being upset or angry that we have pain, or holding responsible whatever body part is complaining. But pain could be considered the perfectly appropriate (and helpful) response to conditions; if we can look upstream to what’s causing those conditions, we can address the source of discomfort.

What’s a similar perspective on illness? Dr. Cowan suggests that fevers are a way of “remodeling” the body: breaking down and clearing out old or defective cells, to make way for the creation of new, stronger cells. If that’s the case, the best approach to being sick is to exercise trust that the body knows what it’s doing, and to accommodate the transition to greater health by remaining calm, comfortable, and at rest. (As in, don’t try to be productive! Try doing nothing!)

I’m writing on this topic because I confess that deep down, I still expect that if I “do everything right” then I will never get sick — so when I do fall ill, it occurs as a moral failure, my punishment for working too hard, stressing out, not taking (as) good care of myself (as I ought to). But Dr. Cowan reminds me that maybe it’s not my “fault” for getting sick; maybe there is a larger process “working me over” to clear out garbage and set the stage for new capacities. The best thing I can do is look on the bright side, chill out, maybe even get curious about what might show up out of this mess!

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