Sickness and Eternity

According to the Rev. Conrad Hock, the Melancholic idealist:

is permeated with a strong longing for an ultimate good (God) and eternity, and feels continually hampered by earthly and temporal affairs and impeded in his cravings. The melancholic is a stranger here below and feels homesick for God and eternity.

This is perhaps never more true than when the melancholic is sick, laid low by some trivial yet debilitating illness. Sickness is obviously far from anyone’s ideal, yet for the melancholic it provides moment-by-moment evidence that something is terribly wrong with reality. Noses aren’t meant to run, throats shouldn’t scratch, and heads are not supposed to feel like they’re being gently squeezed in a vise. Sickness is prima facie evidence that the world is broken.

But sickness is still just a symptom, and while the melancholic would much prefer to not be sick, it’s not as though life would be perfect if only he never again fell ill. Health is more than the absence of sickness, and for the melancholic it seems obvious that there exists a positive state, a more perfect state, which is to our ordinary life as ordinary life is to a bad case of the flu.

Religious traditions tend to fuel this impression, with sickness, aging, death, and tragedy typically conflated with the challenge of moral wrongdoing to create an all-encompassing ‘problem of evil’. The underlying logic of our predilection for wickedness and our susceptibility to physical harm translates into a ‘fall from grace’, a fundamental delusion, or an abandonment of our original nature.

For the melancholic, this ideal state can seem as though it is just within reach, or always just beyond our grasp. It is, as the third Century BC Daoist text, the Nei Ye, states:

So silent!
None hears its sound.
So compact!
It resides in the heart.
So dark!
Invisible of form.
So overflowing!
It is born along with me.
Its form unseen,
Its sound unheard,
Yet its doings perfectly ordered.
Such we call: the Dao.

The answer to our imperfect state of existence is, as the Daoist tradition teaches, to embody the Dao, the mysterious creative principle, in our own lives:

There is a spirit that spontaneously resides within the person:
it comes and goes, none can anticipate it.
Lose it and one is certain to become disrupted;
grasp it and one is certain to become regulated.
Reverently sweep its abode and the essence will spontaneously come.
Ponder it with tranquil thinking,
calm your recollections to regulate it.
Maintain a dignified appearance and a manner of awe,
and the essence will spontaneously become stable.
Grasp it and never release it,
and your ears and eyes will not go astray,
your mind will have no other plans.
When a balanced heart lies at the center,
the things of the world obtain their proper measures.

Thus the Nei Ye sets forth an ideal of human life in the world that borders on the supernatural; a concept of virtue that encompasses even the physical consitution, as though health and virtue are intimately connected:

When a man is able to attain balanced tranquility,
his skin is sleek, his flesh full, his eyes sharp, his ears keen,
his muscles taut, his bones sturdy.
And so he is able to carry the great circle of heaven on his head
and tread upon the great square of earth.
He finds his reflection in the great purity and sees by the great light.
Attentive and cautious, he never errs,
and every day renews the force of his virtue.
Knowing everything in the world and exhausting the four poles of the earth,
he attentively nurtures his plenitude:
this is called: grasping within.
To be so and never to revert is life without error.

Sickness can be a reminder that we are not living up to the virtue we desire. It can be a humbling, even humiliating reminder of the more insidious, ignoble, and overlooked ways we fall short of the ideal in our ordinary lives. Sickness reminds us in physical terms of the terrible frailty in our spiritual lives. Sickness reminds us how weak we are, how far from the goal, how totally dependent on something far greater than ourselves.

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