Inside Illness


Sermon #26 (4th March 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

This month at Essex Church we’re taking on the theme of ‘Health and Healing’. And, ever the ray of sunshine, I thought I’d get us started with a service on what it’s like to be ill. In our society, talk of illness is often about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment – the medical side of things – which is of course an extremely important aspect of trying to keep us well. But I’ve called today’s service ‘Inside Illness’ because I want us to focus on the inner experience. I reckon that giving a bit of attention to that inner dimension of illness – what it’s like to be ill – might help us reflect on how best to respond to some of challenges that ill-health brings, both when we ourselves are unwell, and when people we know and love are suffering in this way.

I feel pretty confident in my starting assumption that everybody here at church this morning has got some first-hand experience of illness. If you have made it to adult life without ever being ill in any way… then perhaps you should be up here, instead of me, telling the rest of us your secrets!

I will resist the temptation to stand here and tell you about every one of the numerous minor ailments I’ve had in the last few years but you can rest assured that I too have some insight on what it’s like to be ill. And, not to put too fine a point on it: being ill sucks. It can be really miserable when our body, or our mind, malfunctions suddenly.

Even if you’re only afflicted with something relatively minor (in the great scheme of things) – a cold, a cough, an upset stomach, hay fever, cystitis, earache, backache, toothache, – all of these illnesses and injuries have the potential to disrupt our everyday lives, at the very least they interfere with our ability to focus, to work, to socialise, to sleep.

However… There is illness… and then there is illness.

And I want to acknowledge at this point that there are going to be people in this room (some I know about and some I don’t) who have got more serious illnesses to deal with. If that applies to you: I particularly hope you find something helpful in this service – if only that it acknowledges your suffering, your worries, the ways in which you have been affected – and perhaps it will open up an opportunity to talk to others about your experience or to ask for help. I do want to acknowledge that even so-called minor illnesses have a noticeable impact on people’s lives, but at the same time I don’t mean to be flippant about those not-so-minor-illnesses which are, in some cases, deeply serious, life-changing, even life-threatening. And it feels important to note that I make no distinction between physical and mental illnesses. Both are real, and significant, and can throw an unwanted spanner or two in the works of our lives.

Our first reading this morning gave us a glimpse into the life of Professor Havi Carel, a philosopher, a phenomenologist, someone whose day job is to reflect on the inner world of lived experience. She is particularly well-equipped to give us some insight into what it’s like to be ill and her story highlights some of the experiences commonly associated with illness. Carel was young and active – an academic, and a fitness enthusiast, in her early thirties – when she came to realise that something was going very wrong with her body. Basic abilities that she had previously taken for granted – to run, to walk, to breathe – were being lost one by one. She got a scary diagnosis and was stunned to hear there was no cure. This was the ‘new normal’ and she would have to adjust to her ‘reduced circumstances’. It sounds – quite understandably – as if Carel railed angrily against her fate for a time. At first she tried to carry on as normal, to resist the changes, as if she could defeat the illness by sheer force of will. Yet she found that her world rapidly shrank. Her illness interfered with her ability to work, to travel, and perhaps most upsettingly it interfered with many of her personal relationships. She lost a lot of friends who no longer knew how to relate to her. Many just disappeared. Strangers, acquaintances, even medical professionals were sometimes quite careless and crass. However, in time, Carel acclimatised to the change – you could say she reinvented herself – she lived within her new physical means and valued those friendships that had weathered the storm. She changed the focus of her philosophy and now mainly works on the phenomenology of illness. She has been working with medical professionals, to help them relate more compassionately to people who are ill, and with ill people, to help them with the process of meaning-making in such difficult circumstances. Since she wrote her book, medical advances have halted the progression of her disease, though – as I understand it – the damage it has already wrought to her lungs cannot be undone.

So: what can we learn from Havi Carel’s experience?

Firstly, perhaps, that we need to listen to ourselves – our bodies, our feelings – and not try to ignore, suppress, or outrun anything we notice that ‘isn’t quite right’.

And secondly, that if we are suffering, it is OK – it is necessary, and healthy – to lament. When something really horrible, like illness – minor or major – is happening in our lives, lamentation – expressing our misery, distress, frustration, and anger – is all part of the process of getting through it and (hopefully) out the other side. What this looks like will vary – if things are really serious, maybe you will just need to lie on the floor and howl – maybe you’ll bend the ear of a willing friend, or a therapist – maybe you’ll let it all out in writing in a journal. There can be a bit of social pressure, I find, not to ‘feel sorry for ourselves’, or to dwell in self-pity… but why shouldn’t you regard yourself with at least as much kindness and compassion as you would anybody else – a friend, say – who was suffering? Let yourself have your feelings. Name your pain. Be a good friend to yourself. It may be that such heart-felt lamentation helps us avoid getting ‘stuck’ in our sorrow, long-term. And if you’re the person whose ear is being bent by a friend who is ill: Havi Carel advises that you don’t have to say anything too complicated in response. Say ‘I’m sorry. This sucks.’ Sometimes, that’s all you can say, and all that needs to be said.

And a third thing we can learn from Havi Carel’s story: Sometimes you just have to STOP. Abandon all your important plans and prior arrangements. Take time to rest and regroup. When we’re ill, we can sometimes feel huge pressure to carry on as if nothing has changed, and Just Keep Going. There’s a great internal resistance – quite understandably – to this rude interruption to business-as-usual. Our culture often seems to imply that if we’re ill then it’s somehow our fault – we’ve not looked after ourselves enough – or it’s a moral failing: we’re not tough enough to shrug it off. Think of all those adverts selling cold and flu remedies to keep us in the office come-what-may (when arguably we really ought to be recovering at home and keeping our germs to ourselves). In this rather brutal capitalist age it can seem as if we are only valued for our economic productivity – think of the ugly rhetoric in certain sections of the media where people who are ill, or disabled, and needing support in times of crisis are dismissed as ‘scroungers’… Whereas we Unitarians, I’m proud to say, often speak of the ‘inherent worth and dignity of every person’: this ultimate worth which is not dependent on our ability to get up off our sickbed and make money for the man.

To recap: If something’s not quite right in your body or mind – listen to what it is telling you – allow yourself to feel your feelings, and lament, rage, and wail about your suffering if you need to – and take the time you need to just step off the conveyor belt of life and STOP. Rest. I realise that sometimes the circumstances of our life make this hard to do… but I suspect that it might be possible more often than we think – at least to some degree – we can disengage from the world for a while without anyone or anything coming to harm.

The Buddhist writer Jean Smith has this to say on the ways in which we react to getting ill:

‘When we become sick, we often take the illness personally
and feel that our happiness is conditional upon getting rid of it.
We forget that illness — along with aging and death — is a hallmark
of our human existence, and we get angry at our bodies for “letting us down.”
Sometimes, out of fear, we generate horrendous stories about
our illness that may cause us more suffering than the illness itself.
When we realize that illness is inescapable,
that stress around illness increases our suffering,
and that being sick is not a shortcoming,
only then can we be at ease with, and even empowered by, illness.’

And she offers this wish, this prayer, which is on the front of your order of service:

‘When I experience the unavoidable illnesses that are part
of my human condition, may I be mindful of impermanence,
free from fear, and grateful for the blessings that also arise and pass away.’

Jean Smith’s words hint at what is, perhaps, the most significant lesson we can learn from all these writers and thinkers on illness. It’s there in Havi Carel’s story, and echoed by Mark Nepo, the poet who gave us our second reading today. Both Carel and Nepo, and many other wise people, speak of the importance of trying to make some kind of sense out of it all, distilling a deeper meaning, from their experiences of illness: an experience they did not choose, but which they had to endure. Finding solid ground within themselves, perhaps, and putting their suffering in a cosmic context.

Mark Nepo talks of how his brush with life-threatening illness pushed him to places where he would never willingly have gone… but because he engaged with his experience, and tried to find the meaning in it, that illness changed his way of seeing the world and deepened his way of living. At the very least you might say that it concentrated his mind and clarified what mattered most. He’s not romanticising his experience – at least I don’t think he is – not at all. It was a terrible time for him, and his family. He isn’t saying ‘oh isn’t it spiritually enriching to be really, really sick’. He’s saying something more like ‘this is the flow of the universe passing through us – we’re all going to go to these hard, hard places to some degree, whether we like it or not – and if we approach it this way then those experiences can ultimately be meaningful or even transformative’.

Think about those illnesses that you have endured – that you are enduring still, perhaps – What has helped you through those tough times? What meaning have you made of it all? And what would you say to someone else who was going through what you went through? Each one of us is likely to have some wisdom we have gleaned along the way that we could share.

I’d like to close with an excerpt from a poem – a blessing, really – by the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue. It’s from his poem ‘For a Friend, on the Arrival of Illness’.

May you use this illness
As a lantern to illuminate
The new qualities that will emerge in you.

May the fragile harvesting of this slow light
Help you to release whatever has become false in you.
May you trust this light to clear a path
Through all the fog of old unease and anxiety
Until you feel arising within you a tranquillity
Profound enough to call the storm to stillness.

May you find the wisdom to listen to your illness:
Ask it why it came? Why it chose your friendship?
Where it wants to take you? What it wants you to know?
What quality of space it wants to create in you?
What you need to learn to become more fully yourself
That your presence may shine in the world.

May you keep faith with your body,
Learning to see it as a holy sanctuary
Which can bring this night-wound gradually
Towards the healing and freedom of dawn.

May you be granted the courage and vision
To work through passivity and pity,
To see the beauty you can harvest
From the riches of this dark invitation.

May you learn to receive it graciously,
And promise to learn swiftly
That it may leave you newborn…

May it be so for each of us and for all. Amen.

Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: