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The healthiest way of being ill is to resist such thinking

Shanika's picture

Are there ways to be healthy while being ill? Susan Sontag suggests in her book Illness as Metaphor, that the healthiest way of being ill is to resist such thinking. Sontag’s book is an inspection of the fantasies invented around conditions such as tuberculosis and cancer in our cultural history. Susan Sontag disputes that illness is not a metaphor and that the most ingenuous way of regarding illness is to defy thinking that one is ill. She gives examples of metaphors and images of illness that are taken from psychiatric and medical thinking as well as from sources ranging from Greek and Medieval writings to Dickens, Thomas Mann, Henri Amiel, and others. Aids and its Metaphors, the sequel, was written in light of the AIDS crisis. It extends her critique of cancer metaphors to the metaphors of “dread” surrounding the AIDS virus. Sontag affirms that our metaphors for Aids and its effects may be damaging; they suggest a disaster in personal and social terms, and therefore threaten not only the victims of the disease but all of society. Taken together, the two essays are an exemplary manifestation of the power of the intellect in the case of the fatal metaphors of fear. Both of these essays put together composes a hefty reading of how thinking positive and not of the disease or illness, can keep one sane.

Sontag shows cancer for what it is, just a disease. She argues that cancer is not a curse, not a punishment, surely not an embarrassment, and highly curable, if good treatment is found early enough. However, the way people have portrayed cancer to be in the 18th century helped create synonyms for tuberculosis and counteracts the many things Sontag believes cancer not to be. For instance, Sontag mentions that in poetry sadness became a synonym of tuberculosis. An example of this is when Henri Amiel, a writer who himself was tubercular, wrote “Sky draped in gray, pleated by subtle shading…stoical in the midst of this universal tuberculosis (32).” Amiel expresses that his world is sad, and this world that he lives in is a tuberculosis world. The sadness that he felt coexists with his illness of tuberculosis, reinventing sadness as another meaning or trait of tuberculosis. Sontag response to the way Amiel was feeling and changing the meaning of tuberculosis was that it took a sensitive person to feel sadness. Being sensitive is thinking a certain way about a situation. In this case Amiel did not resist thinking of tuberculosis as an illness, which contributes to the way he felt, depressed.

Sontag’s example of how one can create a different meaning for tuberculosis is intriguing to me. When describing the way one feels about their illness many different definitions of the existing disease begin to evolve. Such an example implies that it is fair to say that a synonym for heart problems is draining. My reasoning behind this is that being aware that I have heart problems; some of the days of my world are exhausting for me. As Amiel felt sad, I feel fatigued sometimes. Having heart problems and managing my everyday activities to contain my healthiness is a long, tiring process. When I have to manage my eating and exercising habits, and keep up with all medications that are necessary for me to take, my day feels sapped. As Sontag explains, thinking this way is unhealthy. It is a negative state of mind, which can negatively influence ones everyday activity. Think about it; if I thought about the many negative affects that one can obtain due to heart problems, than I would be stressed. Being sensitive is a good thing but a bad thing when thinking about an illness because it instills shame and guilt in the individual. This sometimes leads into a patient avoiding trying to get help.

As Sontag continues to explore the many synonyms of illness, she also discusses provocatively how the metaphor for AIDS damages a society. First she describes AIDS as a form of cancer, an invasion (105). After comparing and contrasting Illness and AIDS she later mentions a metaphor of AIDS, a plague. She states that “plagues are invariable regarded as judgments on society, and the metaphoric inflation of AIDS into such a judgment also accustoms people to the inevitability of global spread (142).” She is stating that plagues are always judgments on societies and the metaphors of AIDS continue to increase, which judges people individually globally as well. This damages how people perceive people in a society and make them fear visiting these plagued societies. For an individual in the society, it makes them shy a way from finding a cure or being helped because they have a sense of guilt. Like many other sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS is described to be punishments not just of individuals but of groups (142). This guilt that the miserable patient has usually comes from believing that it is a punishment for them. Illnesses and diseases were usually associated with sinners. If everyone believes that they deserved it, then the society fails as a whole. How can one not resist thinking of their sickness?

As a cancer patient herself, Susan Sontag shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, chiefly cancer, add significantly to the misery of the patients and often restrain them from seeking proper treatment. Cancer and AIDS described as both unwelcoming invasions have damaged many people lives. If I was in many of the patient’s situations, I would not know how to react. I would think of the disease. Resisting thinking about the illness and the diseases and its metaphors is one way to survive and live a healthy life. In my case, obtaining and healthy schedule and not thinking about the negative affects of heart problems helps me live a healthy, normal life. By virtue of Susan Sontag surviving cancer herself, she discusses the many metaphors for cancer and AIDS that destroys individuals' lifestyles: thinking positive is thinking healthy!