When I read about young people today beset by mental illness in these challenging times, I am so very concerned for them. Certainly, these are not the world’s best days. Today’s youth must deal, must grapple in spite of it all. And some won’t, some don’t, and some can’t.
I have always had to deal with physical illness, often of a catastrophic nature, which is the only way I can relate to others who have experienced a rough go of it. To paraphrase Henry James, I was someone to whom things had been done.
What was the effect of all these reversals on my life? Once a doctor told me not to let illness define my life, but how could it not?
Sickness is an interrupter – and a controlling Svengali. You can try to counterpunch – thump on its chest, lasso it, dull it – but too often it triumphs, a sovereign ruler. I managed a career in teaching eventually, but my years were shot through with illness, making prophetic my palm’s ragged lifeline.
Put simply, a life of sickness is too often a bunny hop – two steps forward, one step back. It’s the meaty hand on your shoulder holding you back, the gun at your head, demanding it be dealt with first. Not attending to it can mean protracted sickness or even death. Thus, my acceptance was often forced; my wisdom from it, uneasily acquired. Clearly, most, if not all, of my calamities had a common bond — a weakness in my immune system, something no doctor really tied up in a neat bow.
Much has been written about the negative effect of figurative language used to describe illness. Susan Sontag in her groundbreaking work “Illness as Metaphor” said she specifically wrote about the misguided metaphors describing tuberculosis and cancer to liberate us from using them. Recent research confirms her contention that employing battle metaphors to describe cancer treatments can be detrimental to people’s healing.
But what if we considered another side to imaginative language as it is used to describe illness, a positive side. Perhaps it can be not only a gateway to more knowledge, but instead the very reason we survive.
I have always loved good literature, the great works, tested by time. Perhaps these books allowed me to get through my many physical setbacks. Perhaps with their refinement of life’s messy lessons, they had defined for me the qualities needed to survive, knowing I was much more than vulnerable flesh. Isabel Archer in “The Portrait of a Lady,” Dorothea Brooke in “Middlemarch.” Even Nick Adams, shattered by the war, in Hemingway’s short story “Big, Two-Hearted River.” All told of resoluteness in the face of dashed hopes, disappointment, even damage.
Maybe the words I loved all my life girded me without my realizing it, made me understand at some level that such acclaimed works have all along moved me, comforted me, reanimated me no matter what I faced. Perhaps they are the probiotics silently working against pain, disability, disease. Perhaps a part of the mind, unbeknownst to our consciousness, takes over at times, relegating the body to handmaiden status. Perhaps imagination, not only making sense of our lives through story-telling and relating, also fortifies us by working below the radar, stimulating our imaginations, quietly, gracefully spinning its protective magic, against the loud, bold shouts of our bodies.
Or perhaps, they are the missing factor as we go further from what we once were, to channel Wordsworth. Since, as he believed, we lose that proximity to the “celestial light” as we grow older, the best of what has been written can sustain us, fill in the spaces, grout for the soul. Wordsworth believed echoes of this light were to be found in nature, but what if they are also found in imaginative language that reminds us of our affinity with human beings from all the ages, going beyond our differences in politics, gender, race, affiliations? After all, only through words was Wordsworth able to express his feelings about nature mirroring immortality.
As I look back, my physical setbacks certainly did leave many of my dreams unrealized. Yet, I made peace knowing I came through what befell me. I came to appreciate the strength of both the body and spirit and developed an understanding for those going through similar trials. I choose to believe it was due, at least in part, to an education of the imagination, through works of literature I’d read all my life, passages I’d underlined in those books, words I’d written down to be looked up, now part of my expression.
We should never discount the power of the imagination in great works, and words, that inspire and embolden us humans, especially those of us whose life stories include physical adversity — or trials of any sort. The words and tales in such books become indelibly imprinted on our minds and spirits. They inform our lives. They comfort us when we are alone. The characters’ stories are unforgettable, timeless; their struggles and victories, relatable and understood at some level.
At the very least, they allow us to imagine ourselves as something more than a physical being, assailed by the vulnerabilities of the flesh. If we've read a lot of the "good stuff," it seems to me that no matter how we fare in life, we can say the journey will have been an informed one, a meaningful one. I learned through recognizing the human qualities illuminated through these words that lives — my life — need not be defined by humiliation and helplessness, often the byproducts of illness, but by dignity, insight, and wisdom.
In essence, an education by the body as distilled through the mind.
Perhaps, these timeless words and wisdom might similarly sustain young people who have had things done to them. Perhaps we should work harder at transmitting this love of literature by those who’ve been serial book underliners, always panting for more. Perhaps we’ve failed them by not sufficiently feeding their imagination to deal with a world devoid of it. Or, as John Stuart Mill wrote after realizing the world was indeed too much with him, reading Wordsworth was "a medicine for my state of mind."