Serious Illness and the Value of Personal Exploration


by Sue Stuart,

Some people believe that serious illnesses have no meaning other than the fact that they occur. This kind of observation is frustrating and annoying, mainly because most human beings find meaninglessness maddening.

Declaring a serious personal event meaningless implies that expending further thought and emotion is fruitless. It’s a way of using logic to protect oneself from pain.

Yet even facing terminal illness, a few inquisitive, courageous people prefer to use their logical ability more creatively than that. They also choose to explore their emotions rather than squash them.

Some observers of others’ trauma seek reasons punitive to the victim, which is actually a rather efficient way of avoiding involvement—of avoiding one’s own pain by avoiding another’s pain. (Sort of like Heinrich Himmler calling for the use of gas chambers instead of shooting squads.)

Still others berate God for not intervening. What, no miracle? Miracles are divine interventions in human affairs—unexpected surprises. They are lagniappes. What happens when the unexpected becomes expected? Not miracles, that’s for sure.

Or people cope.

What a helpless-sounding word. Yet look what coping encompasses: “to maintain a contest or combat, usually on even terms or with success.” Its obsolete meaning is more assertive: “to meet in combat, to strike or fight,” but even that kind of coping doesn’t include the probability or even possibility of winning.

Coping can include dissolving into nothingness. It can also include dissolving and re-forming. But coping is not about ending the source of the trouble or obliterating it. It’s not about victory. At best, it’s about maintaining success, whatever that means, and however you define success.

Consider another possibility. Facing a serious personal illness, death, or similar horrible event, perhaps we are permitted—maybe even invited—to invest or invent our own meaning. Our response, if we have the strength and personal honesty to face our feelings, is a function of our free will. We work with what we have and what we know. We learn like crazy and as fast as we can by wrapping ourselves around events hurtling toward us.

Death, illness, disaster, as we understand them on a physical level, don’t and won’t go away. Even if the longevity sciences get really, really good—and they are progressing at impressive speeds—grief’s not going to depart the premises and disappear down the road.

Investing meaning—even inventing it—in the midst of personal disaster, while rejecting meaninglessness, guilt, blame, and the head-down maintenance that coping requires, may be the ultimate act of creative individualism.

“To whom much is given, much is required.” (Luke 12:48) This includes trouble.

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