You Must Honor Illness
(a Spiral Dance essay)
I've felt pulled off-balance for so long, off-center and not-grounded, and for good reason. I had been ill for twenty years, although it hadn't been diagnosed as what it was till near the end of that time. Then the cure had its own pulls off center, a genuine cure but it comes with its own set of problems, changes and re-creations of what was and what can never be again. I still don't know what the new normal is. If there is one. If there will ever be again a sense of stability and direction.
I spend all this long day waiting, a day where nothing bad happened but I just couldn't get rid of that sense of darkness and void lurking just behind everything you see. Out of the corner of the eye the fabric is ripped away and the play is revealed for what it is, a painted backdrop over nothing. If you turn your head too quickly, the paper rips and you see through the world into that emptiness behind all manifest things.
And that's why I often feel off-balance and fogged out and ungrounded lately. It's just that I don't have any maps any more. All the old maps are useless or incomplete. When you've drifted this far out to sea, there's no sense of which direction to go to find land again. It's water heaving all around, and no smell of shore.
So in the past few days, after a summer's long pull down towards the smiling void, I find myself turning, or returning, to those sources that have given me a sense of center before, a center from which to extend. And so this morning I read, out of nothing that could remotely be called a coincidence, words that linger with me all this long day. Words that come back to me as I fail to find my center and extent once again this late night:
You must honor illness. It gives us time for reflection. As hard as it is, it helps us sort out our priorities. I know there's nothing worse then someone telling you, 'This illness of yours is a gift.' No, it's painful and discouraging. It's not a gift, but it is a time to pull back and take a closer look at one's life.
—Father Sergei, quoted in Mary Swander's luminous book The Desert Pilgrim: En route to mysticism and miracles.
I have tried hard, many times, to honor my illness, and my recovery. Illness has not been a gift. It's been a passage that more or less removed any chance of meeting whatever ambition I had felt years ago for purpose in this life. This doesn't mean there was no direction, but such maps as there were were never more than puzzle codexes in a lost language leading you away from treasure island. Illness sent me adrift and astray. The beneficial knowledge that comes from hindsight about this illness is knowing that in fact my failures in life, so labeled when they occurred, were not a failure of will, not a personality defect, nor a lack of focus. The life-force truly had been sucked out of my blood, blood which tastes like a lost ancestral ocean. I was neither too lazy nor unambitious, I was in truth waylaid by gravitational tides fully veiled until this recent complicated cure.
Still the recovery has been a time of reflection. My priorities, after almost dying, were reshuffled into a new configuration. I know what my purpose here is now, and I know upon reflection what I'm for, what I do best: I am a maker, a bard, an artist, who's really not very good at much else. Self-knowledge is not all roses and lilies, though, as I have discovered I lack any patience for idiocy that would further leech my essence. I know my mortality from the inside out, having almost lost my ability to live. I have a lot to do, and don't want to waste any more time doing it.
So that's the necessary distinction: My illness was no gift, yet it did provide me other gifts. Of self-awareness, of self-confidence in knowing what I'm good at and what I'm supposed to do with it. I'm still recovering. Not what was lost, but what I never had but dreamed. A dream wherein a map guides me no land that ever was, but an island come into being as one discovers it. There's nothing on the other side of those mountains till you cross their range and see what's there, the act of vision itself what solidifies void into form, light into mass. That effortless conversion of energy into matter.