I have been living with a severe chronic illness for five years, encompassing about a quarter of my life.
Living with this affliction as a young man in the 21st century comes with a set of unique challenges, many of which go unrecognized by the general public. It’s the little things that make chronic illness so difficult; not being able to stay out late with friends, the inability to go on long walks, the absence of understanding from my peers, not asking women out because of the fear of becoming a burden.
These relatively small things—from the viewpoint of an outside person—add up into something much larger and come to act as a profound weight upon the psyche.
I had essentially recovered a few years ago and began to pursue a career in mixed martial arts. This didn’t last long, as I eventually succumbed to my illness once again as the intensity of my career choice began to takes its toll on my body. Since then, my condition has only become more and more complicated, as multiple infections have now found their home in my body and don’t seem to be leaving anytime soon.
Sometimes I wonder whether there is any point to this. Is there such a thing as meaningless suffering? Am I just going to live in this strange condition for the rest of my time on this planet? Would it even make a difference?
This whole experience has made me realize how alone I truly am. This realization can be at once painful, but at the same time incredibly encouraging. I am responsible for my own life. I have to live through my own suffering, and oddly enough this comes with a profound sense of individuality. My unique set of challenges is helping me become my own person.
Carlos Castaneda said something like, “The ordinary person sees everything as a blessing or a curse; the warrior sees only challenges.” In that spirit, maybe it’s better to look at my “unique set of challenges” with my illness as a unique set of opportunities to develop myself in ways that correspond with my deeper nature. When we look at our suffering as a special opportunity to grow, it suddenly seems much less dark and insidious. It becomes an ally of sorts—a troublesome friend that can be a bit of a dick but ultimately means well for us.
Much of our suffering has to do with how we interpret it. If we can paint our respective suffering with a more benevolent brush, we put ourselves in a better position to overcome it.
My strange condition has granted me the opportunity to grapple with my own soul. There is a glory in this, although it is not visible to the outside world. When we have nowhere to go, nothing to accomplish, and nowhere to find solace, our only hope for survival is to delve deeply into our own consciousness. Surely this has happened in my case.
The only thing I have done for the past couple years is inquire into my own nature, as well as the nature of humanity. I have found great joy in this, and it is now clear to me that it is the purpose of my life.
I don’t believe in destiny. We do the best with what we have and that is all that could be asked of us. That said, I can’t knock the feeling that my entire life has been building up to this in some obscure way. As displaced as I feel from all the things I could be enjoying with a healthy body, there seems to be something meaningful about what I am enduring and how I am spending my time.
I would be lying if I said that altering my perception of this illness made my process effortlessly beautiful, but it certainly has kept me alive. That is enough for now.
It has become clear to me that our greatest power as human beings is that of enduring suffering while remaining capable of love. I intend to do everything I can to allow this latent human capacity to flourish—whether it be through writing, counseling, or speaking.
Living with illness has given way to this realization, and for that I am grateful. If nothing else, I get to suffer for a reason, and that seems like something to smile about.
When we associate a sense of meaning with our suffering, we open the door to love.