Balance and Fear

Oftentimes people who do not live with a chronic physical illness attempt to help those who do by adapting a logical approach. They may say things like, "ok so at least now you know what it is" and "ok so now you follow the doctor's orders and do what you have to do to treat it." If only the experience of living with chronic illness was so detached from any emotional component. Others may acknowledge that being diagnosed with a chronic illness is upsetting; however, they probably do not grasp the experience of trauma that accompanies such diagnoses. The extent of uncontrollability and threat to one's being that follows is difficult to shake. Although some folks may dive into life in response to a realization that life is limited, many people become fearful and removed from daily existence.

All people are aware of human mortality, but most manage to find a way to banish that knowledge from the immediate present. This is quite a difficult task for people diagnosed with chronic physical illness. The illness itself and its symptoms serve as an ever present reminder of human fragility and limitation. A moment to reflect.... How terrifying is this?!?! This terror can lead some folks to be extremely fearful. Fearful of exerting the same amount of energy as pre-diagnosis, fearful of doing anything that could exacerbate symptoms, and extremely protective of one's self. But what happens when the terror and the fear become so powerful that one stops engaging in life? Ironically, the terror could create a self-fulfilling prophecy where the fear of death actually creates a metaphoric death in one's life. Where is the life if one is too afraid to live it?

How does one work through such a trauma? Somehow the person needs to find a balance that works for him/her. That balance will look different for different people. That balance needs to be tailored for a specific individual's illness and situation. The trauma of being diagnosed with a chronic illness should not be ignored. It should be addressed and acknowledged. It must be discussed. The fear is very real and very reasonable; however, a balance must be struck between what is actually protective/helpful and what actually creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of non-living.

It can be so hard for someone living with an illness to hear loved one's saying, "you're just using the illness as an excuse" or "you know you can push more than you are." The experience of the person is so much more complicated. Maybe the person can push more than s/he is but it is important to understand what is preventing the person from doing so. Sometimes things need to begin with "baby steps" and confidence needs to build slowly. The reality is that death will always loom in the back of all humans' minds; however, that reality is much more real in the minds of those who live with chronic illness. That reality needs to be respected and appreciated so that a transition can be made from paralyzing fear to fear that motivates one to mold his/her life in a manner that feels good, safe, and productive.

If a family member is feeling frustrated with a loved one who lives with chronic physical illness, it would be good to seek support or consultation from a professional or from others who have dealt with such a situation. If a person who lives with chronic physical illness feels traumatized following his/her diagnosis and/or misunderstood by loved ones, it would be advised to seek professional help. You do not have to live in constant fear. There can be a balance!

The Fear, the Feared, or the Fearless

Ancient Chinese Shambala philosophy teaches the path of fearless existence—warriorship. Shambala does not promote aggressive war, but rather describes warriorship as not being afraid of being who you are. Part of facing and not running away from who you are is tolerating being the you, who at times may be experienced as not having a sense of security. We all want security: security of shelter, security of relationships, or security of health. What happens when security is not experienced? People become afraid. People fear that things will fall apart and people scramble to change the situation that they are in, until things feel secure once again.

This fear arises when people run away from the internal stability of who they are. Sometimes people forget that being who they are is enough or fear that it will not be enough, and they latch onto external things for security, such as a house and relationships, and even our physical bodies. It is a radical thing to even say that we do not need our physical health. It can be a devastating experience to lose one’s physical health and to live with suffering. However, it is not true that losing your physical health means losing who you are—your self. Who you are is always there. Do not be afraid to be just that. Even if you are living with a chronic physical illness, your core being, your self, is still enough…even if at times it can feel like you are losing your mind.

There is the fear; your experience of being afraid, which can hold you back from contentment and peace or when acknowledged can thrust you into a position of warriorship. There is the feared; not sufficiently satisfying yourself or your loved ones, disappointing, suffering, pain, dying. There is the fearless! The fearless acknowledge their fear and go beyond it.

Chogyam Trungpa (1984) describes a Shambala warrior as someone who is soft and hard at the same time like a wooden cup covered with layers and layers of lacquer. If the cup is dropped the lacquer may crack but the wooden base remains. Our bodies may crack, our minds may crack, but our inner core is solid…if we are not afraid to accept that. How will you use your fear?

Trungpa, C. (1984). Shambala: The sacred path of the warrior. Shambala Publications Inc.: Boston.