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The Geography of Illness

Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5780

We are issued two passports at birth, wrote Susan Sontag, one takes you to the Land of the Well, the other to the Land of the Sick. We hope to use the first passport right away, for as long as possible, and the other we tuck away deep in a drawer until circumstances demand otherwise.

The Land of the Well versus the Land of the Sick—thinking about illness as a geography can be helpful. When we or someone we know is sick, we travel to a new place, separate and apart from our regular lives. There, we learn to speak a different language. We drive to hospital buildings, learning our way through different hallways, sitting in waiting rooms that people who live in the Land of the Well rarely visit.

What is remarkable about this time in which we are living is that all of us have had that second passport stamped. Whether we intended it or not, for the last forty days, we have immigrated to the Land of the Sick. We have learned the contours of this new geography. For example, one can go to the grocery store, but there are rules about where to stand, how to order food, and what to do with your cart when you are done with it. We are picking up the language as we go. Words like surge have new meaning, and we use new acronyms like “PPE” and “PPP.” The economy operates differently in this place. Money flows differently, and we do not spend in the same way we did before.

All of us now living in the Land of the Sick is disorienting and strange. I have not met anyone as of late who is not without stress or worry. The indeterminate nature of this place is weird. How long do we have to stay in this Waiting Place? Some say the COVID-19 crisis is like a marathon, determined to persevere, confident that there is a finish line. Yes, there is a finish line, and we will cross it. Still, we do not know how far off it is. The lack of definition compounds the stress. Who wants to live his or her life in this place?

After all, the Land of the Sick is a place of pain and suffering, of fear and trauma. This is the place where tragedy lies, and where our flight instincts kick in. Get me out of here, I think. The Land of the Well was a place of joy and comfort, of abundance and blessing. How do I get back to that place, I wonder?

… Once we find ourselves in the Land of the Sick how do we ever get back to the other place? Is it possible to travel back?

Yes. That road is the path of healing, specifically emotional and spiritual healing.

The chaplain with whom I trained always emphasized the distinction between pain and suffering. I think about this often. Pain is physical, suffering is emotional and spiritual. Pain can be addressed with medicine. Pain is the domain of doctors and nurses. Suffering requires something else. Addressing suffering is something any of us can do, because suffering is alleviated with empathy.

In the animated Pixar movie Inside Out, a young girl named Riley moves with her parents from her Midwest life to San Francisco. As she navigates a new house, city, and school, the story is told through the eyes of five main characters: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. These are Riley’s core emotions, and they direct her moods and behaviors through the whole film. As we see Joy attempting to control the whole situation, she finds herself in conflict with Anger. Disgust stays clear of everyone else, feeling the whole situation is futile. Sadness and Fear do not always know what to do when Joy and Anger are in conflict with one another.

A major watershed moment comes when Joy is struggling with the actions of the other emotions. Sadness comes up to her side and sits by her. She puts her arm around her and says, “What you’re going through must be really hard. I’m sorry you have to deal with that.” Sadness knows empathy, and models it.

Empathy is the key to spiritual healing. The late Catholic thinker, Henri Nouwen, describes this as the experience of the Wounded Healer. That, as Jesus healed through his wounds, so too do we. Put into Jewish language, we know the soul of the stranger, because we too were strangers in a strange land. We uncover the path out of this wilderness of sickness when we recognize that we each are wanderers here in this strange land. I may not totally understand what you are going through, and you may not totally get my specific situation, but we get it because we know when we have encountered the soul of another wanderer. The most powerful thing we can do is connect with the other strangers among us, reassuring one another that we are not alone, that we share one another’s suffering, that together we pave the path from the Land of the Sick back to the Land of the Well.

There is a story about a man who is wandering through a desert, completely lost for days. One night, he lies down to sleep, and has a dream. An angel appears, telling him that as he continues to wander, he should put sand in his pockets. Doing this will lead him to the edge of the desert.

He wakes, and begins to walk, doing as the angel told. Soon thereafter, he comes upon another man, who is also lost. The man, too, has pockets full of sand. When they realize that they had the same dream, and with no better solution, they continue on together, each continuing to add sand to his pockets, comforted in the company they now give each other. Eventually, they come to the edge of the desert, and they see a town not far off in the distance. One of the men reaches down for the last handful of sand, and as he puts it into his pocket, he feels something else there. The sand transformed into diamonds.

What we are doing is as strange as someone walking around putting sand in his pockets. The Land of the Sick is a weird, indeterminate Waiting Place. But here we are, wanderers. I pray that in our wandering, we wander together, that we tap into a profound sense of empathy for one another, and in so doing, pave the path of healing and wholeness. May we each find ourselves residents of the Land of the Well, that place that flows with milk and honey, a place of abundance and blessing for all.

Shabbat Shalom.

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