The Taboo on being sick, and helpful advice

This week I read one of the most well written posts I’ve ever read on facebook. Phaedra Bonewitts was “coming out of the cancer closet” to her friends and admitting that she had cancer. She requested that people not offer advice as she got enough of that helping Isaac through his cancer, and stick with sending good wishes. Her essay struck two chords in me, the first was that there is an unspoken stigma about being ill in our society, and the other is the burden of helpful advice.

Sex may have been the taboo for Victorians, but surely being sick is considered a subject not to be broached in public in ours. We may have health insurance and a huge medical network, but to admit that you need anything more than a quick visit to the Emergency Room for stitches seems to call your virtue into question. Recent awareness that most illnesses in our culture are brought on ourselves by our diets, and other lifestyle choices, seems to have extended to a response of “what did you do to deserve that?” when symptoms emerge. As Christians in the previous years often considered illness as a punishment from God for some imagined sin, we see those who are sick as suffering only the just results of their own misdeeds. These misdeeds may be as innocent as having been born with a genetic predisposition for the illness, having our food adulterated- either in one hamburger or salad, or gradually in the accumulation of mercury in fish or whatever happens in the chocolate conching process that creates most “chocolate allergies”. Because sometimes it is possible to discover the source of an illness, we seem to feel that not having done so in time to prevent the illness is a moral failing.

There is a huge difference between ignorance and willful ignorance that seems to be largely ignored by this (almost certainly subconscious) illogic. Sometimes problems are presented to us as an opportunity for growth, but sometimes we are simply caught up in the confluence of all the stuff that’s going on with all the folks around us. We notice when other peoples problems become our problems when we care about them, but sometimes a rock becomes our problem when we trip over it. The universe didn’t put the rock there for us to trip on, it just happened. That doesn’t stop us from learning from it, just as nothing stops us from admiring a beautiful sunset- although it wasn’t created “just for us”. We need to learn to see sickness the same way. Yes, sometimes it is the result of something we might have changed had we been thinking about it at the time, but we weren’t, so now we move forward and deal with what we have now. Learning to do better is good. Beating yourself up for something you weren’t thinking about isn’t.

And that gets to the advice part. We want to be healthy, happy, and have our lives go well, and want the same things for our friends. We hate to see our friends suffer. But they have their lives and we have ours. Also, we call people friends when we like them, but that doesn’t mean we necessarily know them that well. Phaedra isn’t alone in being deluged with advice about how to deal with a problem. Whether it’s fighting cancer or losing weight, finding a job or love, everyone wants to tell you what works for them or what they just heard about. Sadly, as she pointed out, this can feel very disrespectful. If you knew them well, you’d know if they had already heard about it, already researched it, already tried it, whether they liked it or not. The motivation is that you don’t want to have them suffer unnecessarily because they didn’t know about it, but at the same time, how long would it take you to find out if they did already know? Is offering information/advice simply a mark of not having listened long or well enough?

There’s a story parents get told a lot. A child asks his mother “Where did I come from?” and she carefully explains about how babies are born, and when she’s done asks if there’s anything else he wants to know. The kid says, “yes, Johnny comes from California, so I want to know where I come from.” Sometimes the most important thing is to find out just what is being asked. We all want to help each other, but we have to be careful not to project our preferences on them.

I’ve heard some people describe cancer as a blessing in disguise- but while it’s great when someone can experience it that way, I would say that that’s not the first reaction most people have. At the same time, not letting people know that you are sick because you don’t want to deal with their unwanted advice, pity or “competitive sympathy” (“I have the same thing, but worse!”) is putting another burden on someone already dealing with symptoms. Sometimes just a little accommodation (“I’ll do your chore for the next couple of days”, or “you take the window seat in case you have to vomit”) is all that’s wanted. There are times when we are sick and would like to be a kid again, taken care of, and not having to make decisions, but while we might want to spend the day in bed, be brought orange juice and not have to arbitrate family squabbles, we’re not ready to enter the hospital. I look forward to the day when we can mention that we may (temporarily) need a bit of help without having people star assuming they get to make all our decisions for us. We’ve been learning to respect those with handicaps, let’s extend that to those who are sick.

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