Living More Meaningfully With Chronic Illness

Reviewed by Phillip Waite, Ph.D.

Last May, I was rescued by people who never knew they were saving me. When my book was signed to a contract, some kind of psychological stress kicked in, and my Multiple Sclerosis started going downhill fast. My fatigue was incredible. I could spend about two hours a day working at my computer, and the rest of the day I was mostly in bed.

Where I had been lifting weights, doing water exercise, and using various exercise machines, I got to the point where all I could do was some gentle deep-water exercise, called "water-running," wearing a flotation belt. But I didn't give up. I kept coming to water-running, even though I could only do 20-25 minutes out of an hour class, and at a very slow pace. I kept coming, partly because it got me out of the apartment, partly because my body wanted to move, and this was the only way it could. But the main reason I went was to see my water exercise friends.

These weren't close friends. I never saw them outside of class. But I so looked forward to seeing and talking with Sue, Desiree, Ken, Barbara and the others that I would drag myself to the pool, fatigued or not. They were always encouraging, always seemed happy to see me. I wanted to see them, and I didn't want to let them down. So I kept coming. And I started to get better. I'm still not where I was a year ago, prior to my worsening, but I can do 55 minutes of exercise now, pretty vigorously, and have enough energy for my work and some fun, besides. I even got back to the weight room again and started strengthening.

The reason I bring this up is this: those water-runners had no idea how much they meant to me. They didn't know how important they were or how much good they were doing. If it hadn't been for them, I might not have been able to finish my book, which is helping a lot of people. But they didn't know anything about that.

And this situation is absolutely typical. We go through our lives, largely ignorant of how important we are, how much purpose our lives have. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, says, "We all lead much more meaningful lives than we know." In this vast world where everyone and everything is interconnected, our lives have meanings and effects far beyond our awareness.

To be meaningful, we don't necessarily have to do wonderful things or accomplish spectacular goals. Most of the time, what we do is far less important than who we are. Our simple presence, our caring, our bodies, our minds all have value to the world. Yet most of us feel that we are only valued for the work we do or the things we achieve.

We all lead much more meaningful lives than we know. We need to remember this when times are hard, especially when we have disabilities or major health problems. In those situations, we often feel useless, as if our lives have lost most of their meaning, purpose, value, and pleasure. These negative feelings about ourselves can have profound health impacts. I can't do anything about the pleasure; you'll have to find that yourself.  But as far as meaning, purpose, and value, you have those. Even if you don't know exactly what they are, you will always have them, and nothing can take them away from you. So please live and value yourself accordingly.

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David Spero is author of "The Art of Getting Well: A Five-Step Plan for Maximizing Health When You Have a Chronic Illness".

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