I’ve recently been inspired by the people on the New and Ancient Story community (naascommunity.org) to think about illness as initiation. Especially when bodily challenges are of a chronic nature or when they irretrievably alter us in some way, it’s possible to see them as doorways to a new life. Sickness becomes a path that can eventually circle us back to ourselves and our communities with unexpected gifts.
This idea builds upon another idea about illness that was already waning during my childhood, but has deep roots in traditional medicine, which is that illness is the body’s way of regaining balance and health. It used to be common knowledge that although being sick was a pain, we gained from it. Growth spurts, cognitive leaps, and the acquisition of new skills followed fever and chills. On a more quotidian level, the extra heat, sweating, sleeping, and, often fasting, were understood to be cleansing and detoxifying. Traditional Chinese Medicine enshrined this idea in the saying, “Childhood fevers burn off the karma of the parents.”
Although some MDs now advise parents to let fevers run, the idea that sickness is just a nuisance that can be done away with is rampant. So many people see their bodies as malfunctioning vehicles and not as resources of profound healing. We suppress fevers, replace organs, and even tinker with our DNA when we could, with a modicum of trust, simply support its wisdom and realize miracles.
The ancients would caution us against our hubris: They understood that without getting sick once in a while, chronic disease becomes more likely. Witness the epidemic of autoimmune disease, cancer, and diabetes that emerged when we began in earnest to muffle childhood illnesses such as measles and chicken pox. We can’t avoid the body’s own methods for self-regulation and hygiene without creating a mess down the road.
It seems equally likely that forgoing the occasional illness could stunt our psycho-emotional growth. When we decline the smaller challenges, boogeymen start to lurk behind every sniffle. We never become fully initiated adults, capable of facing death without fear.
Stella Osorojos Eisenstein, DAOM, IMT, is a writer and healthcare professional. Her book, Star Sister: How I Changed My Name, Grew Wings, and Learned to Trust Intuition was published in 2012 by North Atlantic Books.