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“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
Chronic illness is more than just a diagnosis. But often the news from the doctor is the first scene in a new act of life. That first instance of categorizing an illness experience exerts remarkable influence. It can be like an entrance into a strange new world.
The natural way of experiencing the world is by way of unconscious habits. But when illness intrudes on this sense of fluid transparency, diagnosis can serve as the answer and formula for moving forward. Therapeutic effects have been attributed to “correctly” applying a name to the problem because it implies that relief is within a reasonable horizon of possibilities.
Often, beginning with diagnosis, habits and the sense of everyday life are transformed. In this way, health conditions can affect all other parts of life, changing how we interact with the world. Illness forces us to alter our rhythms, with the introduction and interruption of medication routines, appointments, and therapies. The everyday implications and limitations of illness, such as diminished energy for activities, using wheelchairs or crutches after surgery, or the necessity to keep a port dry when bathing, become the new norm. These peculiar disruptions of habits arise within the context of unique personalities and situations.
As it were, my diagnosis carried remarkable influence: my life-direction, passions, and education. My experience of first being diagnosed with bone cancer was an integrative one. By letting go of the control I thought I had, the finitude and preciousness of life was now the conspicuous foreground. Cancer served as a strong-armed invitation to slow down and mind the present moment. This moved me to live with intention: to create the best life possible, thus crystallizing my relationships and priorities.
Many times, the influences of our sickness force us to discontinue the affairs of our busy lives to rest. This downtime gives us a chance to collect ourselves and reflect. We have time to think about what kind of life we have led so far and the how we wish to proceed. Breakdown can become breakthrough.
“It feels like . . . in the middle of my life, I have received a year of rest. To be able to, in peace and comfort, think over what I want to bring over from my old life to my new life.” (Arman et al., “The Face of Suffering among Women with Breast Cancer,” 100.)
Of course, this type of reflection does not always come easy. In Being in Time, Martin Heidegger provides an existential account of this phenomenon of postponing the concern for one’s own mortality with the pursuits of everyday performance. (318) But serious illness sometimes brings a person to the limits of life, giving space to genuine, caring reflection. And following Socrates’ famous dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living, philosophical reflection can contribute to a life well lived, regardless of the presence or absence of disease.