There are five things that have been well taught by the Blessed One, the one who knows and sees, the worthy one, perfectly enlightened by himself, that are to be contemplated daily by women and men, by householders and monks.
What are the five?
“I am of the nature to grow old, I have not gone beyond old age” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am of the nature to become ill, I have not gone beyond sickness” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death” is to be contemplated daily.
“All that is dear and delightful to me will change and vanish” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related to my actions, and abide supported by my actions. Whatever action I do, whether good or evil, of that I will become heir” is to be contemplated daily.
– Anguttara Nikaya 5.57, translated by John Kelly
Some sickness visits for a while and then goes away, some stays for a very long time without killing us, and some sickness, or failure of a bodily function, will kill us in the end. As my wise mother often said, “You gotta die of something.”
Being sick is part of being alive. Those of us with good luck are rarely sick; some people have chronic illnesses that limit what they can do in a lifetime. These are the facts; the trouble starts when we deny these facts or take them to be value judgments. The question of why some people become ill and others don’t cannot be answered in any meaningful way. What possible reason could there be for some people to suffer terribly and others to live with hardly any suffering? Since no answer to such a question could ever be confirmed, the whole discussion just leads us into false judgments.
Mental illness can be particularly problematic. Special skills are needed to be of use to people whose minds create trouble for them, but kindness and realism will be helpful in all situations.
So what are we to do with this fact of life – illness? There are many reasonable responses, but they all start with accepting that this is how it is in the world. Then we can make necessary adjustments, ask for help, learn more about what potentials remain for us, etc. Knowing that illness will happen without apparent cause, we might feel more inclined to help those who are struggling. I am moved by repeatedly witnessing very old people checking on and helping each other, day after day. I’ll also recommend a recent French film whose English title is “And if we all lived together?”. It is a lovely tale of how love can be given and received even in messy situations.
The main work for most of us is discovering where our prejudices lie with respect to illness. Do we look away from the diseased or disabled? Is compassion there automatically? When we become ill ourselves, do we respond with impatience and a sense of “why me?”?