Sickness and pride

For a friend who thinks she’s coming down with something.

We’ve been talking about pride and the illusion of a self who is in control, as essentially the same thing.

Once again, we’re defining pride as Aquinas did in terms of Lucifer’s desire to be “like God”:

he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

This pride is not as simple as thinking “hey, I’m awesome”. Nor is it as simple as wanting to be better than others.

Aquinas does elsewhere define pride or superbia as the desire to be greater than one truly is, but this greatness is not simply of magnitude, but of origin. Pride is as much about being responsible for one’s greatness as it is the magnitude of that greatness.

I think the desire to be responsible for one’s greatness is either the same as, or very close to the illusion of a self who is in control.

What does pride have to do with sickness?

Let’s think about what it means to get sick.

Firstly there are unpleasant symptoms. But these symptoms don’t exist in a vacuum. They are coloured and shaped by the idea of being sick, the trajectory of illness, the inevitable onslaught of additional symptoms.

It’s not just a slight tickle in your throat, it’s the beginning of a now-familiar regime of headaches, blocked sinuses, coughs, and fever.

In my experience, while the very first symptom is only slightly unpleasant, what makes it so much worse are the fears and expectations associated with sickness. Imagine if the itch in your throat never progressed. Would you care about it then? I think it would just feel like a minor irritant.

What I’m getting at is that it’s not just the physical symptoms in isolation that we fear, it’s the bigger experience of being sick that upsets us.

It upsets us because it represents a loss of control over our own bodies – what usually feels like our own private domain.

It upsets us because it is humiliating. We sound thick and slow. Our nose runs. We sneeze. We can’t talk properly. We lie in bed sweating with fever. We’re brought low by the common cold, without obvious reason or purpose.

Being sick just feels wrong.

The acceptance paradox

Every time I get sick I try to stop it happening somehow. I’m convinced there has to be a deeper meaning or purpose to it, and that there must be some corresponding secret cure or trick to stop it recurring.

But fighting it only makes it worse, I suspect. The cold itself is really a set of symptoms derived from our immune response. It’s possible that my hostile and defensive efforts to not get sick actually make me more stressed and exacerbate my symptoms.

So the answer is to accept the sickness, and then it will go away, right?

Wrong. Firstly, you can’t trick yourself into thinking “I accept whatever happens” while you also believe that acceptance gives you some kind of indirect control over the outcome.

True acceptance is paradoxical. You’d have to really and genuinely accept being sick in order to stop being sick. And why the hell would you accept being sick? That’s like accepting being in denial. You can’t really accept denial, what you have to do is accept the thing you’re denying.

You can’t go from hating being sick to just accepting it. At least, not with trivial sicknesses like the common cold. More serious illnesses obviously have a lot more going on.

Look at it from my point of view: I don’t think being sick is normal, so I can’t really accept it. Pretend accepting doesn’t work either. So what can I do?

Pride and priorities

I think what you can do is recognise that the common cold upsets us because it is an attack on our sense of control, our pride. And our pride is the real problem here. It ought to be the real priority.

Ceasing to be sick will not help us deal with our pride, our illusion of a self in control. Our attempts to end the sickness by any means are therefore misguided, because they strengthen the underlying cause of the illness – our grasping for control.

I don’t think being sick is normal; but by the same rationale, pride or the illusion of a self are the root of all sickness. In that sense, trying to stop catching a cold would be like hiding the symptoms of a deeper problem.

Our priority should be on letting go of our pride, seeing through the illusion of a self in control. Compared to that goal, the symptoms of a scratchy throat, a headache, or a blocked nose are trivial.

And if we really are on that path of letting go of pride and seeing through the illusion, then I don’t think the physical sensations we call symptoms of a cold will really bother us anyway.

That’s the ideal. It’s not easy to grasp this stuff about pride and the illusion of self, and even if we grasp it in one context, it takes time for it to unfold into other aspects of life.

By the way, you can still take medication for your symptoms. In fact you should, because it’s a kind of humbling admission of defeat!

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