Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fellow Sufferers

I used to organize teams of volunteers to care for individuals during the final phase of their life. Mostly it was HIV disease but also various cancers, ALS, Parkinson’s, diabetes, old age. The client would give me their address book and I would start phoning. I also had my own network of folks who liked to volunteer.

I was prepared for a straight yes or no. I was not prepared for the questions: “How did they get the disease? Did they bring in on themselves by their lifestyle choices? Is he or she an innocent victim or could it have been prevented?”

In other words---if it’s lung cancer, did they smoke? If it’s HIV, did they engage in unsafe sex? If it’s diabetes, were they gluttons?

Many would volunteer but there were always some who only wanted to care for the innocent victim.

Given the complex interactions of environment (chemical, socio-economic, geographic), genetics, lifestyle, etc. figuring out the complex etiologies of disease is like Star Trek’s three dimensional chess. There is seldom, if ever, one cause---the magic bullet.

I think that the victim paradigm can give us the illusion of control. If I avoid this or that I will escape illness. If I engage in this or that behavior, I will avoid illness. Then, if something happens to me, I am an innocent victim.

But illness happens to us all. It is ordinary life. We are fellow sufferers.

There is a story about the Buddha encountering a woman whose child had died. She was so grief-stricken she kept looking for a miracle-cure; would not bury the poor little dead body. She asks the Buddha for a miracle. He says he will do it if she will bring him seeds from every family where someone has not died. As she travels around with her dead child’s body she hears story after story about the commonplace of illness and death. She returns to the Buddha, empty-handed but newly sane.

She buries her child.

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