On Sickness, in Health
I have noticed a number of people in my social media feeds talking about their health problems. They are usually chronic health issues that range from diabetes to allergies to migraines. I sometimes get irked by the how often these people talk about such issues. But I am trying not to feel this way, because I have no right to feel this way.
As someone who, by the grace of Allah, has never had a debilitating illness, or even a fracture, I am ashamed of the scorn I inadvertently may feel for people who are in bad health. So I thought that writing about this would help me and other healthy people become more grateful for what we are blessed with, and be more sensitive to those who do not have this gift.
Someone I know has a condition that causes her debilitating migraines and muscular cramps. A very strict regimen of diet, exercise, and physical therapy has finally helped her cope better, but unfortunately her health kept her from completing her undergraduate degree on time. While her condition is something she has accepted as a part of life, it has kept her from living a normal life. “The worst part is meeting people after a while,” she says. “I’m so tired of hearing: what, you’re still doing that? Because I don’t want to explain what keeps me from doing it. I don’t like being negative or talking too much about myself. But it’s hard to hear such things from such people and not be able to tell them that I would have been able to do so much more had I not had this problem.”
Another person I know who used to have a painful gastrointestinal condition didn’t like talking about it, either. She would dress up, go out, talk, and laugh, and I would be startled to find out afterwards that she was feeling terrible all along. She shrugged it off. She would tell me that feeling ill can’t be an excuse for looking or acting sloppy. And no one could really comprehend the kind of havoc her body wreaked on her. So she might as well pretend everything is fine and not bother anyone about it.
To bring up the oft-repeated wisdom, we are not defined by what happens to us, but how we deal with it. There are people who bitterly complain about their conditions, blaming their parents and friends and alienating themselves in the process. While they are not pleasant to listen to, I remind myself that in an alternative reality in which I am sickly, I might be much, much worse in my complaining and self pity.
But there are several ill individuals, like the friends I mentioned earlier, who embody sabr in a complete manner. Like the two friends I talked about, they happen to be incredibly good sports in dealing with their situations. They go out, smile, employ all the positive energy they have and focus on things that are plentiful and abundant instead of the things in their bodies that are negative and debilitating. They have understood that at the end of the day, no one can suffer from pain but themselves.
It is a test that God put upon them, a test they didn’t ask for and certainly don’t deserve. The fatality of such conditions is the most serious trial a soul can go through. It’s the kind of thing that can break one’s spirit and faith.
For someone who has to bear with such physical anxiety, how can they desire the luxuries healthier people long for? The sick want so little. They don’t want material possessions, because they are of no use to them. All they yearn for is the one thing so many of us take for granted: to be in good health. Even their parents don’t have expectations of them. They can’t. Because the starting point of anything– whether it be is good health. So all they ask for, plead ardently for, pray for, is good health for their children.
Illness has become a permanent state of being for those who have bad health, so they have to develop a lifestyle that helps them cope. God does not send down a burden more than what one can bear. But the bearing process tends to be highly underrated. Bearing is not passively taking what happens to you. It is trying to tend to it, live with it, and pull all the possible good out of it.
In our tradition is the idea that the person who is ill is the one whose prayers are answered. Perhaps that is because they are have to employ patience so completely, so consistently throughout the course of their daily lives.
I like being an indulgent, brooding artist, but when I see and interact with people who are genuinely sick, I feel ashamed. I can’t control my anxiety or sadness and loneliness, but seeing those who have little health made me realize the importance of not needlessly pitying oneself. As soon as I find the contempt rising, I try to imagine what life is like for the person who is ill. And I’m cowardly enough to not bear it. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been put through this test. God does not send down a greater burden than one can bear, so perhaps I’m simply not built to bear the physical and psychological burden of a serious health-related affliction.
From the sunnah of the prophet there is a tradition in saying a special supplication upon seeing those who are in distress. I need to not only say this duaa: I need to internalize it. I am deeply frightened by the prospect of becoming arrogant by virtue of being blessed with good health, and I must never let that happen. This duaa must be written within the walls of my heart and become a part of my being so that it rises to the occasion every time I see someone who is distressed because they are ill.
Several years ago, my father imparted the most invaluable and irrefutable gem of truth to me: in this world, a person doesn’t need nearly as much money as he thinks he needs. What he does need is a few good friends and good health. The more sensitive I become to those who are sick, the more the various colours and dimensions of that truth are realized.
May Allah grant all us who who suffer from illness–whether temporary or elongated–enough patience to get us through these trials. May He cleanse us of our sins simply by virtue of the fact that we endure with patience. May He surround the sickly ones with those who have empathy and compassion and sensitivity for their condition. And may He never let those of us who have good health to stop being grateful for it.