Why me? Elements in Considering the Meaning of Illness and of Handicap

*Original title: Warum ich? – Motive zur Sinnfrage von Krankheit und Behinderung. Der Merkurstab 1997; 50: 213-17. English by A. R. Meuss, FIL, MTA. Reprinted, with kind permission, from Begabung und Behinderung, published in Stuttgart in 1997.

In pediatric practice, one frequently hears the question: why does my child have to suffer like this, why has this happened to my child? But people who develop a disease in adulthood — and it often comes like a bolt from the blue —ask themselves why it has to happen to them, and why at that particular moment. The same question is rarely asked by parents who have a particularly gifted child or by people who have special gifts themselves. Unusual ability tends to be taken as a matter of course or a "natural gift".

An answer to the question as to the origin and meaning of illness and special gifts begins to emerge if we look at life to see what we have been able to do thanks to such a gift or what has developed in our life or for people around us because of the illness. It is a particular aspect of human nature that we learn from pain, suffering and sickness, and this helps us to develop. The essential and fruitful question to ask in dealing with such destiny events is: how was or am I able to learn; what will be the effect on my further development?

Even harmless infections such as the common cold may be seen to have meaning for they help to activate and exercise the immune system, and it will have grown stronger when the infection has been overcome. There is good reason, therefore, why children have numerous acute febrile infections in their early years, when the immune system is still developing and the body has to learn to resist pathogens. The meaning is also fairly obvious in the case of relatively harmless psychosomatic conditions in youth and early adulthood. Sleep disorders, loss of appetite, gastric pain and headaches are functional symptoms which serve to show that the individual has not yet learned to deal with problems and worries inwardly in such a way that they do not affect the functions of the ether body and consequently of the physical body. Insight into these relationships, combined with suitable exercises to practice inner calm or letting go of fears will soon relieve those symptoms.

Finally, it is not difficult to answer the question as to the meaning of illness in the case of chronic diseases in later life, diseases which are not so serious as to set real limits to work and everyday life. Anyone with an illness which he knows will be with him to the end of his life — which is always the case with chronic diseases — will have to ask himself why he is having to face up to the mortality of the body at this early stage. He will have to be aware of the limit set to human life and the transitory nature of the body much more strongly and in a much more existential way than someone who enjoys good health well into old age. With chronic disease in old age, people are faced with the question of whether and how life and existence in the spirit continue after death.

The three kinds of illnesses we have been considering – harmless acute infections, the milder kind of psychosomatic illness, and tolerable chronic disease in old age – show only too clearly that they offer people an opportunity to learn something to further their development in body, soul and spirit and that this is helpful and important for their progress in life. 

A question that is much harder to answer concerns the meaning of severe congenital handicaps, incurable or extremely painful conditions, and also serious accidents that maim and have consequences for the rest of one's life. In dealing with such strokes of destiny, which are meaningless at first sight and cause bitterness and despair, it really matters if one has actually learned to address one's questions in a direction from where helpful answers may be expected to come. Looking for such a direction where questions serve a purpose and answers may come, it can be a major help to consider the case histories given in the gospels. Let us go into this a little.

Reading the case records in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we can distinguish three basic types, presenting in pure or combined form. The type of record does, however, have nothing to do with the actual disease in each case. It relates solely and entirely to the nature of the treatment or the way in which healing occurs. The approach to treatment is always determined by the destiny situation in the given case.

The first type of record involves highly personal destiny situations. An example is the encounter with the blind man in Jericho.

And they came to Jericho. And when he went forth from Jericho, followed by his disciples and a large crowd, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the wayside. Hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth he called out in a loud voice: "Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me." Many of the people threatened him and told him to be silent. Yet he called all the louder: "Son of David, have pity on me." Jesus stood still and said, "Call him." And they called the blind man and said to him: "Take heart, stand up, he is calling you. " At that he threw off his coat, leapt to his feet and hastened to Jesus. And Jesus said to him: "What am I to do - for you?" The blind man said: "Master, grant that I may regain my eyesight." And Jesus said: "Go, your faith has healed you." And at once he was able to see again and followed him on the road.1

Here, the name of the person is given, and there is an individual encounter, a "dialogue between physician and patient." We also hear what the patient is asked to do and what he does afterward: "followed him on the road." This type of case record comes closest to the kind we are mainly concerned with here – individual medical advice. And the meaning of the healing process is also at the individual level. As always in the gospels, it goes hand in hand with an inner awakening or conversion. 

Case records that are given less consideration today are those where it is not the patient who is at the center but the people around him. It is they who matter, going through inner change in the course of the event. The centurion of Capernaum may serve as an example.

When he had finished speaking, and the people had also listened to him, he went to Capernaum. There the servant of a centurion lay sick and was close to death; and he was someone the centurion trusted. When the centurion heard of Jesus he sent the Jewish elders to him asking him to come and save the life of his servant. They came to Jesus and pleaded greatly, saying: "He is worthy of your help, for he loves our people and has built our synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them. And When they were quite close to the centurion's house he sent his friends to meet them and say to Jesus: "Lord, do not trouble yourself, I am not worthy to have you tinder my roof; this is also why I did not presume to approach you myself. Say but one word and my servant will recover from his sickness. I, too, am subject to higher authority, and myself have soldiers under me, and when I say to one of them 'Go,' he will go, and to another 'Come,' he will come, and when I say to my servant 'Do this,' he will do it." And when Jesus heard these words he was amazed, turned to the crowd that was following him and said: "I tell you, nowhere, even in Israel, have I found such great faith." And when the messengers returned to the house they found the servant in good health.2

Here, the personal destiny of the sick individual does not emerge. The story is more about the people whose destiny has brought them into association with him and who go through great changes. The sudden illness of the slave helps the Jewish elders, the centurion and his friends to find their way to the Christ. Asking about the meaning in this case, we have to realize that "success", the meaning of the illness, is seen not in the sick man himself but in the people whose destiny had made them be around him.

It may seem strange at first that someone goes through a serious illness and the significance of this is not primarily for himself but lies in the things gone through by those who cared for him and took an interest in his life and development. A look at daily practice dealing with sick people does, however, show this to be frequently the case. There are patients where the meaning-issue clearly relates to the individual concerned, with those around him endeavoring to help him in this learning process, though the event does not bring any major changes in their own attitude to or understanding of life. One also sees exactly the opposite. The sick individual is accepting his God given destiny and is content in spite of the severity of the condition; but those around him go through despair and the depths of concern, fear and uncertainty. The illness is shaking them awake. Just as children see their parents in a very different light and vice versa, and each goes through very different experiences with the other, so people relate to this situation in different ways.

Destiny links between people show an extraordinary degree of differentiation. What matters is the wholly individual nature of the developmental situation of the individual and his relationship to the people around him. With destiny links we enter a realm where everything is incomparable, special and unique. No destiny is like any other for people's inner lives are utterly different, even if their biographies seem superficially similar. This becomes apparent if we succeed in gaining people's confidence and real insight into the things they have actually lived through, suffered and achieved in life.

Apart from the personal and social levels of destiny involvement there is also a third, human level. Individuals have their destiny, and so have groups of people, religious communities, nations, large and small social groupings such as families or groups that work together. Beyond this, however, there is also the general human destiny context. Humanity as a whole has evolved through the millennia; it has a past, present and future – it has its own destiny in the world as a whole. Here, too, sickness brings awakening, for it can make individuals aware of being part of the whole of humanity. The meaning of an illness is then not limited to the personal or destiny-determined social level but lies mainly in the sphere where individuals become aware of being part of the whole of humanity. An example of this kind of case is the first one given in the gospel of Luke.

Coming down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, he taught the people there, too, on the Sabbath. And they grew ecstatic at his teaching, for his word had the power of the spirit. There was a man in the synagogue who was possessed by an unclean demon spirit. He shouted loudly: "What is it, Jesus of Nazareth, that connects us with you? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: You are the holy one of God." Jesus raised his arm against him and said: "Be silent and come out of him!" And the demon flung the man to the ground in the middle of the room and went from him without doing him any harm. Amazement fell on them all and they said to one another: "What power of the word! He speaks to the unclean spirits with an authority as if all the power of the creator and the world were in him, and they must yield to him." And the news spread through all the surrounding land.3

Compared to the other two cases we have mentioned, we hear little about the individual concerned in the Capernaum synagogue. There is no personal dialogue. The Christ spoke only with the spirit of his sickness, the demon, commanding him to leave the sick man. The other people present are also not mentioned. They talk to one another in their astonishment that such a cure was possible.

This is a case where the illness is seen to be at a purely spiritual level. The question as to meaning here indicates that humanity needs to come to grips with evil and with disease in order to develop. All creation stories speak of this, as do all archetypal tales of light and darkness, and it is also everyday experience for 20th-Century people. Surely there is not a day when we do not meet with evil or at least things in us or around us, including newspapers and television, that want to hold us back. The question of the meaning of evil is one of the most important but also unbearable ones we are faced with in life. It would be so good if we could develop without having to come to grips with this nightmare of all that is human, with something that is plain evil, going against nature, and of which we have seen so much in this Century through wars, genocide and domestic brutality. Yet we only have to consider daily life at its simplest level to see that unless we as individuals deal with error and with evil one thing will be lost in human evolution, and that is freedom. Freedom as a central aspect of human dignity is inevitably bound up with the potential for error. This means that the constitution of a world in which freedom is to develop must also leave room for evil, which is the opposite element.

The story of Job 4 also reflects this third type of illness which is so difficult to understand. It has a prologue "in heaven" where the Lord God speaks to the devil, praising his servant Job who is above all reproach. The devil listens to this and then opens the Lord God's eyes by pointing out that it was not difficult for Job to lead a godly life, since life was easy for him. He had everything a man needed in life — a good wife, children, wealth, friends and also health. "But," the devil added, "put out your hand and touch everything he has and he will curse you to your face." The Lord God accepted the challenge and gave the devil the power to harm Job in any way he could think of, except that he must not kill him. Thus Job was in dire trouble though "blameless", and finally they all doubted and suspected him of having secretly committed a serious sin, seeing that God did not punish the innocent. The further course of events proved them wrong, however. Job, not conscious of having done wrong, and the people whom destiny placed around him who also could not see any meaning in Job's illness and suffering, were being prepared so that they might understand something much deeper — that you can fall into sin by thinking that error and evil are to be found only in others, and that you are pure and beyond reproach yourself. Though this was true in the case of Job, individuals must ask themselves: where have I been able to gain the quality of being beyond reproach? How has it been possible for me to learn to be a good person? It is then easy to see that one owes this to the people with whom one has been living — and to the fact that human evolution as a whole exists. For if one's own destiny environment has not confronted one with a particular problem, from which one might have learned something, one is told about it in the history of the human race, in experiences others have had. Therefore, much can be gained by learning to understand and work with the experiences of others and with major historical events. We owe the way we are not only to our personal destiny field, but also to the great process of human evolution; and when Job began to see something of this, he was deemed worthy to behold God. He perceived the meaning of humanity and found the nearness of God that exists within humanity.

This also broadens the meaning of "fault." There are individual faults which individual persons best clarify themselves by admitting them to themselves. Then there are faults committed in relation to others, faults one is often not aware of. We live in the illusion of having done the right thing, having no idea of the pain or even collapse our own actions may sometimes have caused in others. Such harm done to others without being aware of it needs to be balanced out in some way in a later life on earth. There is also wrongdoing that is on the humanity level and connects us with God himself. Because evil was permitted to be part of our evolution from the very beginning, it is also God's "fault" to have made that original decision. It is because of this that we read those direct dialogues between God and the devil in the Old Testament and between Christ and the spirit of sickness in the New Testament.

This shows the significance which this third way of falling ill can hold for the individual and for those who share in the experience. This form of illness really touches on the ultimate questions and therefore on the very core of our individual nature, the spiritual entity in us we refer to as the "I". This I is bound up with the destiny event in three ways. It is the cause of our personal destiny and therefore the source spring of our individual development. For destiny and development are shaped according to the deeds of this I during lives on earth. At the same time the I is part of common destiny. Looking back on one's life one will find that one owes everything one has so far learned to the people who have shared this life. Our development is thus the outcome of all the human encounters we have had; and new people are continually coming into our lives who help us to become aware of shortcomings and make up for them, at least in part. Seen like this, we are in the debt of the people who have enabled us to gain all the abilities we now call our own. In a third dimension, the human being and his destiny are also part of the whole destiny of the age, part of the evolution of humanity as a whole, and once again we are indebted. It is this last aspect which makes the concept of illness a Christian one.

The question is not: what do I or those around me gain from the illness? It is: what can I do for humanity by sharing in its suffering with my illness and its overcoming? The Christ went through suffering on behalf of others, for there was no fault in him. This third category of illness is often seen in cancer and AIDS patients. These are people who have a definite feeling that they are not — or at least not only — suffering for their own sake; they are aware that they are balancing something out for humanity as a whole by taking on suffering for the sake of others. They serve humanity by taking this path. "Blamelessly" they share in carrying the burden of sin humanity had to take on itself because evil, with all its temptations and challenges, is part of human history.

If one suffers an illness or impediment or is close to someone who does and is asked for help, one might ask the three questions I have outlined above. Put briefly, they are as follows: What gain may there be for the individual concerned, or what may he learn from this? What may the people around the sick person gain from sharing in the experience of such a destiny element? Finally, what signs are there that the affected individual belongs to humanity as a whole and is aware of his illness connecting him to humanity and something it needs for its salvation at the present stage of evolution? Questions such as these, put openly and honestly, lead to answers that can help take us further. They may take the form of good ideas; they may come as something one is suddenly able to observe; or they may make us understand words we read or hear in a new way. We can see how far the answer is the right one from the extent to which it helps to heal and to bring inner peace. I have found again and again that deep down patients know very well that their illness or handicap has something to do with themselves and their destiny. This deep-down knowledge can be brought to the patient's full awareness by questions such as these and the answers that may come. Both the patient and those around him may gain great comfort from this.

Ultimately the "Why me?" question can only be answered by the individual concerned for the cause and consequence of destiny have their foundation in the I. Here past, present and future come together. How do I know if the wholly unexpected and seemingly groundless suffering I undergo is necessary so that in a later life I may be able to cope with a major challenge presented to me? Illness and handicap serve not only to balance out things we have failed to do in earlier lives, or the significance of which we failed to grasp; their meaning also may relate solely to the near or more distant future. One of the most deeply moving discoveries Rudolf Steiner made during researches in this field was that there is hardly any great benefactor of the human race who has not had an earlier incarnation as someone handicapped in body and/or soul. If we learn to think and feel in terms of the future in this respect, we find ourselves able to meet the minor weaknesses and impediments of everyday life with humor. This humor is fed if we know that every weakness we overcome becomes a strength. Every problem we are unable to solve at the moment will one day, when it has been solved, enable us to speak words that give help and relief. If we thus create inner images of how someone else will be at a future time, quite different powers can be set free if we put our trust in them so that present-day problems can be overcome. Instead of taking things rather personally and getting extremely annoyed about them, we'll be able to look at things more objectively and find it easier to cope with obstacles and problems that arise.

The question of the "fault," thus, goes through a helpful metamorphosis. For it is no longer a matter of whose fault it may ultimately have been but solely and entirely of what this "fault" may help us to see and to realize, what we can learn by it and from it, and what potential for positive development opens up through it. Taking this view, it is also easier to face with greater composure the many sins we commit towards human beings and the world of nature that are part of modern life. The "collective guilt," as it is called, of nations such as Germany and others also poses existential questions for the individual. Here it is helpful to ask oneself: What can this guilt – whatever its source – teach us, teach me today? How can I resolve guilt so that it becomes an active sharing of responsibility?

Michaela Glockler, MD 
Medical Section of the School of Spiritual Science at the Goetheanum 
Postfach 134 
CH-4143 Dornach 

1. Mark 10, 46-52, based on Emil Bock's translation into German. 
2. Luke 7,1-10, based on Emil Bock's translation into German. 
3. Luke 4,31-37, based on Emil Bock's translation into German. 
4. From The Book of Job in the Old Testament. 
Goethe dramatized this "case record" in his Faust, the modern book of Job. This gives this type of sickness special significance in our present time. For the Faust figure represents the drama of modern human development, when man must become aware of the pact made with the devil, that is, his connection with evil.