Sunday, December 10, 2006

Illness as Metaphor

Browsing through an eclectic used bookstore recently, I came upon a copy of Susan Sontag's small but mighty "Illness as Metaphor", published in 1978. Sontag uses her wisdom and literary talent to expose and debunk the myths which blamed the victims of tuberculosis (in the 19th century) and cancer (in the 20th century) for their own conditions, often exacerbating their suffering by propagating myths which have the power to discourage rational thinking and the pursuit of the best treatments for disease. Although I fully embrace the idea of the mind-body connection, certain writers, thinkers, public institutions and media sources have often used fear, ignorance, and outright bigotry to hold sufferers of certain diseases at arm's length, rendered single-handedly responsible for their plight. Fear of death will turn humans away from their suffering brethren, and Sontag points out that TB and cancer were hallmark cases in such treatment and myth-making.

Making my way through the first few chapters, I immediately began to wonder how this idea has been treated by writers and thinkers vis-a-vis the AIDS epidemic. A quick Google search revealed that, lo and behold, Sontag had revisited the ideas of her original book in a follow-up treatise, "AIDS and its Metaphors", published in 2001, which I am now very keen to read.

Although I have yet to finish the former work of Ms. Sontag and am as yet uncertain if I will agree with 100% of her thesis, I can immediately agree that language has been frequently used as a weapon against the sufferers of myriad diseases. I am sure Ms. Sontag will address in her second work the notion that AIDS began in the early 1980's as a "gay" disease, with large numbers of gay men in urban centers falling prey to a strange "gay cancer" erupting on the skin like so many bruises. The long-esgtablished marginalization and social isolation of the gay community allowed mainstream America to ignore its importance, many claiming that AIDS was a punishment by God visited upon the "wicked" homosexuals and their "unnatural"ways. Photographs of early protests even show evangelicals holding signs using the word "gay" as an acronym for "Got AIDS Yet?" or "God Abhors You."

Words are powerful, and even those of us with the best intentions may at times use them to the detriment of others. In my position, it is all too easy to fall into blaming those affected by substance abuse, eschewing the disease model and embracing the notion that these individuals are wholly responsible for their actions and should know better. Life experience alone will convince most thinking individuals that substance abuse and the suffering it engenders goes well beyond a simple "personality flaw" of the sufferer. Similarly, depression---experienced by millions of people around the world---responds quite poorly to admonitions that one should simply "get over it" and "cheer up". Research bears out that substance abuse and mental illness have genetic, physiological, psychological, and chemical components over which we do not have complete control. Exasperation with a recalcitrant substance abuser is one thing---outright blame is another.

AIDS, cancer, substance abuse, disfigurement, disability---any and all of these conditions can cause the uninitiated or ignorant to turn their faces in disgust or denial, the common denominator being fear. Fear of death, fear of mortality, fear of the unknown, fear of the "other"---our fears will often prevent us from looking another in the eye and see their suffering as if it were our own.

Each day is an invitation to open ourselves to the suffering of others, and each time we embrace that opportunity, we further the causes of compassion and love. As Mother Teresa once said in one of my favorite quotes of all time, "I have found the paradox that if I love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, only more love."
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