Life, illness, and death are basic human conditions. But at the same time, it is a very individual decision which specific meaning you ascribe to these elements. These meanings also affect the behavior patterns of our life and its consequences. Ascriptions of meaning can – considered without any judgment – be of religious, nationalist, pluralist, and atheistic nature, or be supported from the symbiosis of several ways of thinking.
In the training of health care professionals and in public lectures, the author of this article noticed that illness has a very negative image: the color which stands for physical and mental discomfort is a deep black, while shiny white is the color of health. Consequently, modern medicine therapies have been developed that do not necessarily try to diagnose the causes of diseases, but most of all combat the declared enemy. For this purpose, high-dose drugs, radiation and other weapons are out in the field, according to the motto: attack is the best defense.
The doctors make every effort to win the battle, but there is a risk that the emotional state of the ill person falls into despair - because it is taught to him that his new physical condition is an unnatural, undesirable condition. Thus, a melancholy forms, which reduces the quality of life dramatically. The patient regards the illness as invincible.
In the following, I will present some perspectives that renowned scholar Said Nursi (d. 1960) demonstrated decades ago. They are still powerful today. In my opinion, they harbor the potential to raise the quality of life not only of the ill, but also of healthy people.
In his treatise "The Twenty-fifth Gleam: 25 Remedies for the Sick"1 Said Nursi throws 25 views (Turkish: Deva2 ) on the phenomenon of illness. His outlook could assist in transforming the negative picture of illness into a positive one.
Anyone who prepares himself while he or she is a healthy person, if they later catch a more serious illness, will benefit from this text. Nursi's thoughts on the meaning of illness and potential remedies can play an important role in preparation. Those who internalize his message can help prevent the emotional fall into depression and may instead hope for a cure.
Said Nursi's first view presents its readers with the understanding that illness should not be seen as a problem that brings bitterness into life, but that you can also draw strength out of it. There may, as said before, be different ascriptions of meaning to human life, but ultimately all people agree that life is something precious and offers a variety of opportunities. The direction of our lives depends on which use we make of these opportunities.
Those who consider illness as something negative will experience every illness as a curse. Such an attitude has a negative impact on the patient and their environment and turns them very pessimistic. They might castigate themselves, and ask questions like: "Why is it me of all people who has this disease?" In extreme cases, this can lead the patient to become delusional and withdraw from society. A shift in perspective, however, can release positive energy and let sorrow and pain melt away.
Those who recognize the opportunities offered by life and appreciate the efforts and labors of everyday life as something positive will concede that even diseases have a meaningful function – for themselves and humanity as a whole.
Nursi says that ill people perceive time differently, which enables them to observe their environment from a more passive perspective. This passivity is supposed to tear modern, urbanized people from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and move them to a pause. It decelerates the lives of those affected and leads them to horizons healthy people find difficulty to access.
Nursi's second view goes to the role of prayer which he defines in two forms: positive and negative prayers. He refers to prayers like ritual worship, fasting, supplication, and other forms of remembrance as "positive" (müspet) prayers. "Negative" (menfi) prayer on the other hand is attaining awareness and knowledge of one's own vulnerability and mortality – which is more likely to arise in moments of illness rather than any other time – as a result of which one turns to God in praise of His ultimate power and infinity. Nursi signifies these positive and negative prayers as the second remedy.
The insight into our own transience, which is the third remedy, allows the ill person to recall their past mistakes, many of which might have been forgotten, and allows them to reconcile with themselves and their fellow humans. According to Nursi, this allows a person to realize they are not as perfect and as infallible as they thought. Illness makes people honest: honest with themselves and with others. The confession of the own fallibility is tantamount to an admission of human weakness and mortality.
Viewed from this perspective, the question arises as to whether illness itself is a cure for mankind. It conveys us new views and leads us to reconsider our previous positions. The ill person becomes an observer, and he finally has time to start thinking. As said by Nursi, he realizes that mankind may be considered the crown of creation. But man's frailty, his aging, and also the health problems of other people make him realize that life on earth is not all there is – a realization that opens his eyes and takes him out of the darkness into the light. Becoming aware of one's mortality takes away any thoughtlessness. It causes a person to shed laziness and reflect on their obligations.
If the patient manages to do so, they will feel gratitude and be patient, not least in dealing with physical ailments. This gratitude and patience is what Nursi refers to as the fourth remedy. For Nursi, the body is not the property of man, but rather a loan, which he may not dispose of freely. Suffering is to be endured, since it can do some good, too. Nursi characterizes it as a kind of bonus, which God the ultimate owner of our body grants to us, and we should not protest against it.
Chronic diseases or disabilities, which are seen very negatively in today's society, can be reinterpreted positively in this way because, as Nursi asserts, they bring a gain in knowledge compared that we cannot achieve when healthy. As a result of their illness, they understand new things that healthy people cannot, just as blind, deaf, or dumb people perceive their environment differently, and sometimes more sharply, than people without physical limitations.
Each person strives for well-being, mercy, and forgiveness, and every sorrow and misfortune also harbors rays of mercy in it. From behind the veil of the illness many quite pleasant insights can emerge. A new consciousness arises, and thus many people gain the courage to take risks and reposition oneself in life.
This maturity Nursi describes as the fifth remedy and it can be observed especially in young ill people. Because of their illness, and in contrast to their peers, they have to cope with issues that seem to contradict their youth. They do not fall into the typical noise of youth and are relieved of thoughtlessness and of the pressures of everyday life.
From this point of view, health, for some people, can be even a calamity that can make their heads spin and blind, and lets them lose sight of the fact that their life does not last forever.
Even these first 5 of 25 views on the subject of illness show that not everything, which is interpreted as negative, is actually negative. A shift in perspective can often work wonders.
Nevertheless, such a shift in perspective appears quite disconcerting initially in our modern society in which health equals to a gift and illness to a disaster. If we have considered diseases as the enemy for so long, why should we suddenly welcome disease? A notion that a disease may also enrich the patient and their friends and family is a useful approach. Surely, the thought that positive thinking can influence the illness (coping), and even contribute to the healing process, is quite common. However, the angle shift described by Said Nursi goes much further. And in my eyes, there is no doubt that it is able to significantly improve the quality of a patient's life and environment.
Illness allows ill persons to pull out from everyday life, at least for some time. Thereby, it gives them new insights and opens doors that probably would have remained closed if they had stayed healthy. Illness allows a refocusing of which we can benefit from as individuals and communities.
Erdogan Karakaya is pursuing a master's degree in history in Heidelberg, Germany.