As a physician, I’m acutely aware of the fragility of life. Health is a both a precious and precarious gift. A person can appear hale and hearty one day but face a life-threatening illness the next.
In my practice, I’ve learned that human beings are incredibly resilient. I’ve seen patients bounce back from just about every imaginable illness or injury… even when the prognosis was dire. They emerge on the other side, but sometimes the road back to health leads in a slightly different direction. Even when health is restored, a significant illness or injury will often can leave a scar. And those scars can change a person. They can rob a person of their mobility, cognitive functions, or physical strength. I’ve known many people who feel broken because illnesses or injuries in their past.
Some of the most severely “damaged patients” that I’ve seen are also examples of amazing strength. Their bodies may be broken in some respects, but it often seems as if their spirits shine even more brightly than ever…right through the scars.
Whenever I see this sort of resilience, and perhaps more importantly, whenever I’m working with a patient who is in the midst of recovery from a serious illness, injury, or surgery… I always teach them about an ancient Japanese art form called kintsugi.
Kintsugi describes the practice of repairing broken pottery by using a lacquer mixed with powdered precious metals (often gold, silver, or platinum) to mend the shards of a broken vase, bowl or ceramic object. The word kintsugi (also called kintsukuroi) roughly translates into “more beautiful for having been broken” which refers to both the art form and the philosophy that underlies it.
What I love about this concept is that the goal of both the art and the philosophy of kintsugi is not to hide the scars…it is to highlight and beautify them as a part of the life and history of the object. Brokenness and imperfection are emphasized in a way that imbues the object with even greater beauty than before.
- I’m thinking now of a stroke victim whose right arm and hand does not work like it once did…but the mindfulness with which she approaches everyday tasks has a grace of its own.
- I know a cancer patient who will never feel physically whole, but the gratitude she has for each day seems to make her fully present to each and everyone she touches.
- I’m also thinking of a young boy with a life-threatening illness called cystic fibrosis, whose maturity far exceeds his years.
- I see an amputee who runs further and faster on one leg than he ever could with two.
In each of these cases, there is certainly some fragility, but there is an inner strength and spirit that shines through the cracks.
The importance of reframing illness
As a doctor, my goal is to help people overcome suffering and regain health. But medicine can be a humbling profession. Sometimes, our best efforts are not enough. I’m tremendously inspired by many of my patients, particularly ones who have managed to reframe their illnesses.
I often have patients tell me that they are a better person for having their disease. I can see firsthand that this ability to cognitively shift the way they look at their condition really makes a difference when it comes to patient outcomes.
You can put an illness in the driver’s seat — or the back seat. That psychological choice (which you alone can make) can have a huge impact on your happiness and your recovery. With that in mind, here are five ways that I believe illness can be reframed:
- Illness can be a wake-up call. Although it’s always better to make good diet and lifestyle choices to help avoid a crisis…a crisis can be a powerful reminder for you to engage in healthier habits.
- Disease is an opportunity. Serious illness or injury has a way of reducing life to its essentials. It can encourage people to focus more on what is really important to them.
- A health crisis can bring out the very best in your friends, family, and support networks. I wish that we could all be as kind, generous and supportive of each other as we are when someone is sick. Nobody should have to be sick to learn just how much people care about them…
- Disease can snap a person out of self-centeredness. I frequently see people who have overcome a serious health challenge and then become more grateful, generous, and empathetic.
- Illness is an opportunity to give and receive unconditional love. Flirting with mortality makes a person appreciate that being kind, supportive, and nurturing to others is the most important gift you can give (or receive) on this earth.
Fragility is part of the human condition
My instinct (and my job) as a physician is to help people heal. But sometimes I simply cannot put all the pieces back together exactly the way they were before. And that’s okay.
Fragility is part of the human condition…and every scar tells a story. Sometimes, a disease can cause cracks in a person’s body, but those cracks can be filled with resilience, courage, and tenacity. Therein lies a beauty that is healing and awe-inspiring all at once.
Take good care,