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Illness and Wisdom

He who has known only grace cannot understand the anxiety of the sick. Only sickness gives birth to serious and deep feelings. Whatever is not born out of sickness has only an esthetic value. To be ill means to live, willingly or not, on the heights of despair. But such heights presupposes deep chasms, fearful precipices--to live on the heights means to live near the abyss. One must fall in order to reach the heights.

Is it any coincidence that our profoundest thoughts arise out from the ashes of hearts set on fire? Unlikely. Tormented souls, like darkness, give birth to dancing stars and liberate our highest hopes. It is necessary that hope first dance with despair in order for it to secure its essence, otherwise we shall live, as we all our lives do, never knowing if we despair or hope, befriending a nervous anxiety with no name because without a decision. Cancer patients speak of the blessings of knowing they shall soon die of their illness. In this one tragic but amazing instance, the sickness is the cure. There is nothing like the inevitability and imminence of death to set your whole life straight, or at least whatever little shall be left of it. Tragedy requires the hero to be unconscious, unaware of his fate even as it slowly crumbles before him. But alas he still hoped in a dialectic which he hopes would favor him in the end; and so he struggles and fights, believing that fate is won by one's own hands, trusting in a universe that he still imagined to have divine laws and justice and reason. In effect, it is those old beliefs that killed him, and never the actual death or fall into despair. The terrible moment of death, the free fall into despair--this is what liberates us as they crystallize what had long been empty certainties without reality and consequence. The very first philosophers had it right when they said with a sigh that to learn how to die is to learn how to live. 

Those who have come back from illness and despair, they are the lucky ones. They stared at death's lovely countenance, were cast into its spell and soothed by its songs, and were told of life's secret--the secret that there is no secret to happiness. It is true that one may never recover from that conscious moment. Most will walk away blind, remain silent for the rest of their lives; we see this most in the old and dying with their wet eyes without tears, and empty but focused gazes. But if you are young still, whether in heart or spirit, recovery is never impossible, resurrection not implausible. To resurrect from despair does not however mean suddenly knowing how to pray and kneeling before all gods; or "seeing the light," finding life's true meaning, beginning to truly love. No, that would be replacing old idols with new ones no more empty and hollow than the first. To be revived, or to recover from physical or spiritual illness, is to secure before one's eyes the possibility of being in despair again, never forgetting and forever mourning for that part of you that is lost forever. All thoughts that come after, all your philosophy, and even the rest of your life will be one long eulogy to your first and irrevocable death.  And as with all eulogies, which have the sole advantage of having seen a whole, complete life through, your thoughts cannot be but wise. 



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