Health and Humility: The Hidden Gift of Illness

Sometimes it takes a significant life event to open us to new ways of being…

By Aninha Livingstone

Original post on RainbowLight Blog


To be alive is to be vulnerable. Health challenges are just one among a myriad of experiences that can shake up our world, reminding us that ultimately, we are not in control.

Life is always in flux. During certain periods we find ourselves on top of the world and at others, on our proverbial knees. It is during the more difficult times that we are reminded of our true size in the face of the mysterious workings of order and chaos.

The loss of vitality, the presence of symptoms, and the uncertainty that accompanies medical diagnoses and prognoses disrupt our accustomed ways of experiencing life. Whether illness arrives at our doorstep as chronic or acute, the sense of powerlessness that can arise in the face of impaired capacities may challenge our very sense of self.

In this state of vulnerability we cannot find solace in the mainstream values of autonomy and mastery, nor in the sea of commerce built on the denial of our shared mortality. As such, we must look elsewhere for repair and restoration.

One such place is surrender. As we risk letting go of the culturally reinforced need to perform, prove and produce, illness has the potential of becoming a transformative process. When productivity is taken off the altar, the bare bones of our lives begin to rattle and what matters most will not be silenced. Here, we are offered the opportunity to see from a different place, one that does not take health, and perhaps life itself, for granted. 

This common phrase, “for granted,” points to a shared awareness and acknowledgement that when healthy, we are being given something; from whom, or from what is not stated and yet implicit is an unseen, unnamable force. Regardless of our spiritual or religious backgrounds, whether we believe one of the many faces of God or prefer an atheist view, the dark soil of humility provides previously unsought illuminations; unsought because there is a level of suffering that accompanies being humbled, and illuminating because this alchemical process sheds light on previously untapped resources.

Some of these capacities are recognized by the research of Nielson, Marrone and Slay, who explore the link between leadership and humility. They refer to humility as “multi-dimensional” and suggest that leaders who have greater humility also tend to embody, “self-understanding, awareness, openness, and perspective taking.”

These qualities live in each of us, and yet sometimes it takes a significant life event to open us to new ways of being and perceiving. If you or someone you love is struggling with illness, I offer these simple questions, based on the aforementioned capacities and on my own recent health crisis:

  • Awareness: What is present now, in my body, in my mind, in my emotions?
  • Openness: How can I say yes to what is, even if what is includes resistance to this experience?
  • Self-Understanding: What stories am I telling myself regarding my health? Can I question the assumptions and meaning that I am making?
  • New Perspectives: If I am not currently able to embody the level of autonomy and competency that I am accustomed to, what doors might open, as these seem to close?

Health is a blessing. Upon that, we can all agree. Illness is another story, one filled with both challenge and opportunity. As much as we may resist opening to the full scope of what it means to be alive in these human bodies, doing so can only serve to open our hearts and minds to the preciousness of this life we have been given.

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