The Kingdom of the Sick

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

– Susan Sontag

Life gives each of us an opportunity, sooner or later, to become a citizen of the kingdom of the sick. The Southern writer Flannery O’Connor called it a place “more instructive than a long trip to Europe.” Have you found it instructive? Have you been teachable when you were in the kingdom of the sick? Or did you reflect on the trip later?

Four years (only) of chronic shoulder pain has given me a mere glimpse into the distress and desperation that some people feel on an on-going basis. Medications, electrical stimulation, physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and meditation never brought total relief. Physicians, social work/pain specialists, physical therapists and psychologists all helped me. I struggled and practiced acceptance daily, but my attitude suffered at times. I learned such gratitude for being healed eventually.

There is a loneliness to illness as well. Although others may accompany one for periods of time, one suffers twenty-four/seven in one’s own body. There is solace in imagining that I am resting in the palm of God’s hand, an anthropomorphic image which comforts me. I love the schmaltzy old Methodist hymns too, like “When the Storms of Life are Raging, Stand by Me” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” There is consolation and desolation in illness; it is a teeter-totter.

Flannery O’Connor also remarks, “Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.” As a hospital chaplain, I have seen how sudden death, like a car accident, robs loved ones of the opportunity to say good-bye. On the other hand, illness before death gives loved ones some opportunity to say what is important. I have facilitated such conversations many times using physician Ira Byock’s four suggestions. I helped the family members to say to the patient (even if the patient could not respond): “I love you,” “please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” and “good-bye.” These have been the most important things and other statements naturally followed. Families generally appreciate help in getting conversation going. (If Byock’s suggestions are not appropriate, loved ones will say other things. Chaplains can be flexible in facilitating conversation.)

I do not want to wait until I am in my last illness to say, “I love you,” “please forgive me,” and “I forgive you.” I prefer to stay current in my relationships and especially, resentment-free. (Try praying for the person you resent for 30 days.) I am not aware of any faith tradition that recommends withholding forgiveness. So, why wait until I am in the kingdom of the sick once again to say these things? How about you?