While writing this month’s column, I am confined with an illness that has stopped my normal work. It’s a discouraging, uncomfortable interlude, yet I am seeing how illness can also bring one valuable realizations.
For example, I wrote a poem that I don’t think I could have written had I not been sidelined:
My list of Things toDo
falls to the side.
All I do is rest.
Yet one cry to Krsna
is worth a hundred days
of marching in pride.
In the spirit of making the best of a bad bargain, I would like to suggest some hidden benefits to look for the next time you have the misfortune of being physically ill.
One of the first things I noticed was that things went on fine without me. This may be a crushing blow to the ego, but there is always some competent young fellow ready to take up the slack when the boss is missing. Even on the level of national heroes this is true. National heads may feel pride, thinking, “Without me, everything will go to ruin,” but history shows that the world goes on. No one is irreplacable. Seeing this truth in my own life has reminded me to look out for delusions of grandeur about who I am once I return, by Krsna’s grace, to my normal responsibilities. I take less for granted. I’ve become more grateful for the honest work that awaits me when I return to health. And I’ve had other realizations. When illness strikes you down, it becomes pretty obvious that you aren’t the center of the universe, the enjoyer of all things, the lord of all you survey.
To miss work on account of illness may lead us to consider just what a hectic pace we usually keep. In reading the Bhagavad-gita (something I usually have precious little time for), I recently came across Lord Krsna’s description of the modes of passion and ignorance, which He describes as the driving forces behind the actions of most everybody. The Gita’s basic teaching is that each of us is an eternal spirit soul. Out of greed and forgetfulness of God, however, we have chosen to come into this material world, where we are being forced to act under the influence of the material modes of passion and ignorance. Taking on a burden of superficial duties, we utterly forget our spiritual nature and work passionately for temporary goals. We may think we are the doer of our activities, but actually we are not. We are driven by the mode of passion. Srila Prabhupada explains this in one of his purports in the Bhagavad-gita:
In the mode of passion people become greedy, and their hankering for sense enjoyment has no limit. We can see that even if a person has enough money and adequate arrangements for sense gratification, still he has neither happiness nor peace of mind. Why is that? Because he is conducted by the mode of passion. If a person wants genuine happiness, his money will not help him; he has to elevate himself to the mode of goodness by practicing Krsna consciousness.
A careful reading of the Bhagavad-gita will make us consider more deeply whether we require a fundamental adjustment in our life. After all, if we allow ourselves to become absorbed in the rat race of passion, we may miss the real goal: self-realization. Certainly, if illness turns us toward a valuable scripture like the Bhagavad-gita and leads us to re-evaluate our priorities, then that illness is a blessing.
But usually illness is a negative experience. We may be forced to sleep a lot, to become numbed by medicines, or to endure chronic pain. The quiet days of inactivity become boring. After all, every individual’s nature is to become happy through some kind of activity, and illness restrains us from that pursuit. Undoubtedly, disease is an unwanted imposition, yet that very frustration may give rise to a very thoughtful question: “Why do I have to suffer this disease?”
To ask this question is to go beyond symptoms to the original cause of our discomfort. During my present illness, I have heard a lot about the distinction between symptom and cause. One naturopathic doctor gave a graphic example of this when he told me that treating a headache with painkillers was like turning off a fire alarm because you’re bothered by the noise. In other words, the headache is often but a symptom, and to cure it completely one must correct the underlying cause. But the question “Why do I have to suffer any disease?” goes beyond holistic-health-consciousness and leads ultimately to a profound philosophical inquiry. The ultimate goal of that inquiry is to understand the original cause of all suffering and to apply the remedy.
This question—”Why do I have to get ill?”—was asked five hundred years ago by Sanatana Gosvami to his spiritual master. Lord Caitanya. Lord Caitanya replied that disease is one of the four natural miseries of material existence: birth, disease, old age, and death. These miseries will always occur as long as we continue to take birth within this material world. The miseries, including disease, can be alleviated only when we attain our original, spiritual consciousness and transfer ourselves to the spiritual world, where life is full of bliss, eternity, and knowledge. Ultimately, disease is caused not by infection or by bad diet or by overwork; it is due to taking a material body. We may think that after a little rest and medication we will bounce back, but unless we find the root solution, there will always be another illness—and not only in this life but in repeated lifetimes in various species.
My recent experience has been that illness may make us more humble and thoughtful, and that that in turn may lead us to seek the guidance of spiritually advanced persons and of the revealed scriptures. Our friends’ “Get Well Soon” cards are but wishful thinking. Only with spiritual knowledge can we free ourselves from the miseries inherent in nature. But if we are without this knowledge, all our endeavors are wasted.—SDG