In sickness and in health - C.K.Mathew, C.S. Rajasthan


This is the time for allergies. I have been a long-suffering victim of pollen and dust mites for the last thirty years. When the bite of winter wears off and summer is just around the corner, when you cannot make up your mind whether to wear a sweater or not, that is the time when your nose prickles and your eyes water and there is a rasp in your breathing. Sometimes the airways in your lungs constrict, and each breath is a struggle. When this is in the night, there is a special miasma to it: you panic, you think dark thoughts, you gasp and sit up in bed, startling your sleeping wife. You think you are having a heart attack and your end is near; you are in terror as your imagination scatters. Of course, sunlight makes things look better: you consult the doctor, he prescribes some anti-histaminic pills and you are feeling better already.

A small ailment can destroy the peace of your mind; all the carefully fashioned equanimity, nurtured over the years of maturing and growing old, fly out of the window when you are struggling for breath. Somebody one said that in minds crammed with thoughts, organs clogged with toxins, and bodies stiffened with neglect, there is just no space for anything else. Consider then the wretched plight of people who face serious diseases with which they struggle heroically: Cancer, renal failure, HIV Aids, heart attack and by-pass operations, physical impairment. Consider too the daily struggles they go through as they fight depression and loss of faith, neglect and a sense of uselessness that can crush the soul. The face of God dims in your mind. And you curse yourself and the fates that have brought you to this plight. That is why I am in awe of these silent heroes, these warriors of the soul and the spirit, these unacknowledged champions, from whom we can learn a lesson or two.

There may be genetic reasons why a particular person may be afflicted by disease. Or there may not be. The life style we lead may take us to the brink of disease and ill health. When we treat our body with contempt, it hits back with illness and disease. “Poor health is not caused by something you don’t have; it’s caused by disturbing something that you already have. Healthy is not something that you need to get, it’s something you have already if you don’t disturb it”. So said the wise Dean Ornish. Of course, Lin Yutang put it humorously, “If one’s bowels move, one is happy; and if they don’t move, one is unhappy. That is all there is to it.”

I wish we could all be healthy and strong: I wish we had all been manufactured in such a manner as we never fall ill. I remember Thomas Carlyle smiling and saying: “ Ill-health, of body or of mind, is defeat. Health alone is victory. Let all men, if they can manage it, contrive to be healthy!” The human body is fashioned perfectly, provided we let it function that way. Said Leo Tolstoy: “Our body is a machine for living. It is organized for that, it is its nature. Let life go on in it unhindered and let it defend itself, it will do more than if you paralyze it by encumbering it with remedies.”

But that cannot be; it is the human condition that ill-health or disaster comes our way, sometimes by our own doing, sometimes by the quirks of fate. Sometimes we know it is coming. But sometimes we don’t: it is like a bolt of lightning from the heavens on our unsuspecting heads. The real questions we have to ask are two:
a. if such an eventuality should befall me or you, how shall we grow the fortitude or courage to meet it; and
b. since disease walks all around us, should it befall someone else, a friend or a stranger, what can we, as caring citizens, do to soothe the fevered brow.

There is a vow that a husband and wife say to each other when they enter matrimony. The Book of Common Prayers says: “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.” What happens when wife or husband, especially in his or her old age, should fall seriously ill, requiring the constant care and attention of the partner or spouse. Is the love between them strengthened or will the test prove too arduous for the bond? Or when the son or daughter should be struck down by illness and accident, with what mighty courage do the parents meet the adversity? Bonds are tested, family relationships are threatened, love that had once bloomed may wither and fall away. Such is the power of an infirmity.

So then what can we do, as a community, as a caring people, to help ease the suffering of those around us, especially those who cannot care for themselves, or do not have the means to find solace on their own. Indeed the government is doing much to alleviate pain and illness; though in the delivery of public health systems, there is always much that can be done to improve the situation. But I am really talking of something that we can, as individuals, or as groups of concerned citizens, do to ease pain. Can we not, that is to say the better off amongst us, those with surplus wealth and the means to do good, adopt dispensaries and clinics, peep into the wards and look for those who need assistance, and then quietly do our bit and disappear. Indeed such acts of kindness do not require publicity or propaganda. But surely we can do our bit, be empathetic and gentle and kind and bring a smile to those who are in pain. I know there are civic groups who do just that. Think about it, if each of us individually, or as a group, could make a change for the better on the lives of those who are unable to look after themselves, what a mighty change there would in this world?

But until then, let each one of us learn our lessons from seeing those around us, less fortunate than we are. As Shakespeare said, sweet are the uses of adversity, for we can learn from them and become better men and women. And above all understand the nature of the human condition and smile. I quote from a writer whose name I have forgotten:”Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keep friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.”

So keep smiling, through pain and illness and disease and sickness, and help others to smile. The pain may not go away, but it would certainly lessen. Emory Austin said it well: “Some days there won’t be a song in your heart. Sing anyway.”
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