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Illness and Responsibility

Why do we get ill? No doubt the answer is often complex, and it is a mistake to think there is just one single cause when very often it is a combination of factors. In Traditional Chinese Medicine these factors include inherited imbalances, poor dietary choices, climatic factors, lifestyle issues and, not least, emotional difficulties. Most of these things we can influence, for better or for worse. This then raises what may be a controversial question. If we are ill, is it our fault? On the one hand, if we tend to answer yes to this question – maybe we eat badly, or avoid exercise, or keep ourselves trapped in a long-standing state of anger or anxiety – this can lead to guilt and even self-loathing, which will only make matters worse. On the other hand, if we bristle with resentment at the very suggestion that our suffering may, in part, be our own doing, we can settle down into the role of the helpless victim.


Thus, especially if we have a serious and chronic illness such as ME or cancer, we need to work out our emotional response to the question, “Why me?” This response needs to avoid the extremes of, on the one hand, beating ourselves up about it all and, on the other, of taking up the role of helpless and resentful victim. In fact this is an issue which every human being has to face, as every one of us reaps the consequences of how we have lived, and few of us have lived like an angel or a sage. Most of us have made mistakes, and have to live with the consequences of those mistakes, whether those consequences manifest as illness or in some other way.


So what should our attitude be to the past? Perhaps we need to acknowledge it, and, in the context of illness, acknowledge the ways in which we may have contributed to our getting ill. However, we may instead say that we have not the faintest idea why we are ill. This is especially so when our health system is so technical and specialised. How can we, a mere layman, understand why we have the illness we have? Something is going wrong, and we do not understand it, and do not understand why it is happening. This may tend to put is in the victim camp.


On the other hand, perhaps we can free ourselves from the shackles of technical medicine, and use our intuition. The more self-awareness we have, the more likely our intuition, or even our common sense, will tell us why we are the way we are. If I go around all the time in a constant state of fear, with my shoulders hunched up, is it not possible that I may end up with a headache or an arthritic neck? If I am always angry and frustrated, is it not possible that my blood pressure gets too high? If I always gobble down my food whilst doing something else, not chewing it properly, is it not possible that I will get some kind of digestive problem, like a stomach ulcer or acid reflux? In some ways the illness we get may be giving us some kind of feedback as to how we have lived our life to date, and if we endeavour to be receptive to that feedback, we may learn something crucial about ourselves.


Traditional Chinese Medicine is often very helpful in helping us to understand why we are ill in the way we are. For instance, it makes useful connections between different emotional states and the way they affect the individual. For example, it says that anger makes Qi rise. (Qi cannot be easily translated, but means something like ‘vital energy’) This means that anger often causes symptoms in the upper body, especially the head and neck – think migraines, headaches, tinnitus etc. Of course everyone gets angry from time to time, but problems arise when we become habitually angry, or when we repress or deny our anger. Prolonged sadness, on the other hand, depletes the Qi, and may especially affect the lungs, leading to shortness of breath, fatigue, a weak voice, even asthma.


Of course these kind of ideas need not to be applied too literally, but they give us a clue, give us a framework to ponder on the connections between our emotional lives and our illnesses. Perhaps they can stimulate us to become more sensitive to the way that emotions manifest in our body – if we are really aware, we can begin to feel how, for instance, excessive worrying is tying our Qi in knots.


If this kind of process leads us to acknowledge that our illness may in part be due to how we have lived, then , knowing that we cannot change the past, we can come back to the present, where we do have a choice. That choice may not include the option of freeing ourselves totally from the consequences of our past actions, but it does include the choice to live in such a way as can at least mitigate the effects of the illness, at least to some extent.


Written by Vimalaprabha

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