Tuesday 26 April 2022

Harsh spiritual and psychological lessons from my recent illness

Without going into details (and making clear that it was in-no-way life-threatening); my recent illness was an existential challenge, and unique in my life so far. 

This was because it combined the most extreme malaise I have experienced (exhaustion, demotivation, anhedonia, anorexia); with at least two simultaneous unremitting and severe forms of pain/ dysphoria (of several types, throughout). 

(Note - I use dysphoria to mean the opposite of euphoria - as a generic term that includes all types of pain, but also all other acutely-unpleasant pain-like symptoms such as nausea, heaviness, and that drained and 'washed-out' sensation characteristic of 'flu').

Consequently, for a week, I was always in an acutely miserable state; plus I always lacked energy, concentration and drive. 

The horrible result was that for that week I was horribly selfish and self-centred; and insofar as the wider world impinged on me, my attitudes to everything were wholly negative and pessimistic. I was disgusted at myself for this; but such disgust merely added to the negative-mix - it did nothing to combat the fact. 

The fact that I understood, theoretically, just why this should be: why (in a pathological sense) it was happening; this was of surprisingly little or no help - certainly it did not make me feel significantly better. Thus I could only escape the horribleness of the closed-world of selfish-self-centredness for a few moments - after which the default state inexorably re-imposed itself. 

Furthermore, I was reduced to an almost-wholly non-spiritual level of functioning. Meditation and (meaningful) prayer were eliminated; all the perspectives of a joyous and hopeful nature were experienced as mere forms-of-words or futile actions - and anyway lasted only for very short periods before the mind would return to its miserable brooding. 

Some of the lessons I took from this included that there are situations when circumstances are stronger than resolutions and convictions; and where positive efforts are so feeble and short-lived as to be swamped. 

I see how some kind of illness, sufficiently sustained, could easily overwhelm whatever defences were in place; and could poison even long-term and deep patterns of good attitudes and behaviours.

I hope that in future this makes me more empathic towards those who have become narrowed and petty as a result of sickness or circumstances, too strong and lasting for their resources to resist.  

In retrospect; the experience has confirmed my understanding of this mortal life as a time for spiritual learning - and not (or only very seldom) a phase of solid, incremental, spiritual progression. 

In other words: theosis is properly understood in terms of what we have learned spiritually during mortal life on earth, being recognized of value to our immortal resurrected life in Heaven. Theosis is not, therefore, about making ourselves better Christians throughout mortal life - such spiritual improvement being detectable and evident during mortal life. 

If I had previously supposed that I had made significant spiritual progress as a Romantic Christian - then it would have been devastating to see it all swept-aside so 'swiftly and effortlessly' by a combination of physical symptoms. 

Instead (now that I have emerged from it) I can see that this state of malaise-dysphoria (during which I could find no positives and was crushed by negatives) functioned as an experience that was intended to be learned-from - but learned not while-it-was-actually-happening; instead, learned in retrospect

My main conclusion is that life can get the better of us

We can find ourselves in situations where no amount of positive thinking and spiritual hope (nor of medical intervention) can alleviate the situation. 

Unavoidable suffering just-is part of life, part of the divine plan for each of us (and for some more than others). 

We will sometimes find ourselves 'inside' an inescapable adverse situation - and while that situation continues we can do nothing more than cope as best we may. 

The challenge comes afterwards - looking-back; when we are called-upon to make sense of it. 

That is when our Christian faith should come into its own.  

Note: I am here trying to draw general conclusions from a personal experience - I am not soliciting advice or sympathy. Also I will not publish any comments that aim to be reassuring or consoling: that is not the point of this post. Nor am I looking to compare notes with others having had what seem like similar experiences, except insofar as they contribute to this overall aim. 


Joel said...

In the interests of analysis, I thought that it was interesting how similar your experience, as described, sounds to drug withdrawal. Real addicts, at least the ones that I have known, have been using their drug of choice to eliminate all of life's pains for so long that the reintroduction of even minor normal pains during withdrawal is intolerable and "dysphoric".

In fact, life for everyone fairly often seems to contain periods where our pleasures and pains and passions are out of proportion and unprofitable. Most people would love to be able to just turn feelings up and down with a dial, as in Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep". Much of our mortal task of fighting sin seems to be about fighting this internal system whenever it happens to be broken-down in some way. And the modern world seems to break it much more often than the primitive natural world ever did.

So if this world is a training ground for us somehow, then God seems to wish very much for us to learn self-control and correct perception, among other things, in situations where both are difficult. And it seems not to be a lesson at which we ever attain much mortal mastery.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Joel - I think it is an error to try and make generalizations about what God is trying to teach by certain *classes* of suffering in certain *classes* of people - especially when a large majority of these people are not Christian.

I am sure that God's life-lessons are tailored to the needs of each specific individual person at the particular point he or she has reached; and That is what we are called-upon to understand (i.e. what *this* means/ meant for me/ here/ now).

John Venlet said...

The sharing of your self-analysis is of benefit to more than just yourself, and, as such, is both enriching and encouraging to individuals striving for closer trust in God, and also sobering at the same time. God speed to you.

Moonsphere said...

Happiness teaches us nothing except how to be productive in the physical realm.

For a ploughman, bricklayer or craftsman to be miserable while they work is a jarring thought. But we all need to be productive to some degree and so we must rely at least on some baseline serotonin to get us through the day.

To be joyous is a different matter from happiness. A joyous undertaker I could imagine - but not a happy one. Joy is a spiritual state and likely is fuelled more by suffering than good fortune.

That suffering is the currency of spiritual progress is why many dislike the very idea of Christianity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Moons - It is wrong to use 'serotonin' in this way! It's nothing to do with valid science - and indeed derives from Pharmaceutical marketing copywriters promoting the early Prozac-type drugs. What Serotonin *actually* seems to do, is both varied and different - but in fact it is not at all well understood.

That aside I think I take your point - you are using 'happiness' as something like 'short term pleasure'; which - as you say - doesn't have anything to do with spiritual progress; whereas joy certainly often does.

Daniel F said...

Roosh, who converted to Orthodoxy around three years ago, went through a similar illness and wrote up his lessons from that. As one might expect, from an Orthodox perspective, his focus is on preparing for the end in terms of "getting right with God" now (because if one becomes truly ill, he will not be physically or mentally capable of preparing anymore).

"On my death bed, I will be capable of reciting the Jesus Prayer and other short prayers, ask God for forgiveness of my sins, and not much more. I’ll be lucky if I can do the sign of the cross. I surely will not be able to make up for years of lost time to build additional virtue. Whatever is my spiritual state on my death bed will likely be what I take with me into the next world. This means I must be fully prepared today for the end, because I do not know when God will demand my soul. If there are still spiritual tasks I must perform, but which I am holding off, I’m in great danger, because I am making the foolish assumption that I will continue to live for a long time, when the reality may be that my bed turns into my coffin on this very night. For acute illnesses and other health emergencies, you must make right with God before they hit, not during, because you may not even be fully conscious during the crisis."


(I thought that this contributes to the overall aim of the discussion as it is also someone drawing general spiritual lessons from severe illness.)

Lucinda said...

I believe there are spiritual sicknesses in us that must "come out" by physical sickness. I think there is, or can be, a sanctifying effect, heart-softening toward God.

I realized when readying myself for the birth of my 6th child that I needed to think of the labor pains as a preparation for my relationship with the new little person, allow the experience to deepen my heart, to make room for them. Yesterday one of my daughters came to me with that look in her eyes, needing help, and it struck me in the heart, right in that spot of empathy that brought back memories of the pain of childbirth. And I was so grateful to have a chance to be there for her and hug her.