Illness and the Law of Attraction
I’ve recently gotten hooked on Sex and The City reruns, thanks to my TIVO. At first it was a guilty pleasure, but I’ve decided that this show celebrates some lovely and important feminine ideals, like friendship, self-esteem, and unapologetic sexuality, which are all paths to self-acceptance and maybe even (eventually, and with the right focus) self-actualization. Last night, I watched an episode where one of the characters, Samantha, was diagnosed with breast cancer. When her doctor told her that childless women had a slightly higher risk factor for it, she interpreted this as a subtle judgment about her chosen lifestyle. “You’re saying this is my fault?” she cried, and stormed out of his office then and there, without a second thought, in search of a more supportive doctor.
The doctor wasn’t really saying that; he was merely prattling on about statistics, as doctors are prone to do. That isn’t the point. The point is that, at the slightest hint that she brought the cancer on herself, Samantha had heard enough, and was off in search of a doctor free of judgment and personal opinions about the cause of her illness.
This scene brought tears to my eyes. Sure, Samantha overreacted. But still, wow. For a woman to be that sure of herself, to believe the cancer was bad luck, nothing more, and to be completely unwilling to be in the presence of someone who gives off the slightest whiff of disagreement on that point…just, wow. It’s an utterly rational, utterly self-affirming reaction to a cancer diagnosis. It’s also tragically rare, an upstream swim against widely accepted notions about disease.
We have a tendency to believe that if we contract a serious illness, we’ve somehow brought it on ourselves. The first place we tend to go is inward, as in “What did I do to deserve this?” Diet? Lifestyle? Stress? And if we find nothing conclusive in any of these areas, then: Karma? Which, of course, can’t be disproved, so we settle down firmly on it, because it’s the only thing that can make sense of contracting a serious illness, whether it’s us or someone we know.
This “Blame the Victim” mentality goes at least as far back as The Inquisition, and rears its head today even in modern medicine with notions such as those challenged by Susan Sontag in her now classic study, Illness as Metaphor, which was “the first to point out the accusatory side of the metaphors of empowerment that seek to enlist the patient’s will to resist disease.” In other words, the way the medical establishment encourages sick people to fight their illnesses carries with it an implicit message of blame. Perhaps this happens because the doctors are victims themselves, of a mentality so ingrained in our culture (and I think in most others as well) that such blame is our default outlook unless we consciously seek to challenge it.
Sadly, most of us do not.
Even those who are supposedly on the cutting edge of higher consciousness are guilty of this. Some of the worst purveyors of the “illness is deserved” mentality today are various New Age groups, such as certain Buddhist practitioners (for example, this site, claiming that “Buddhism attributes karma as an important contributing factor to health and disease” or this one, which claims that proper meditation can cure illness) and the entire holistic healing movement, which, while fundamentally rational, is generally practiced under a grave misconception: that we have complete control over our health.
We simply do not. And I think this whole misinformed notion is epitomized by the Law of Attraction. In recent years, the Law of Attraction has become wildly popular, promising its practitioners everything they want in life if they really believe in it and if they practice it “correctly.” It’s really just a bastardization of positive thinking, cloaked in pseudoscience to make it sound both weightier and loftier than it really is. (This article at ZenHabits.net is a good introduction to what’s wrong with the LOA and why.) In relation to getting sick, it’s easy to see the logical shortcomings of this “law,” and thus by induction, the shortcomings of all philosophies that implicitly purport blaming the victim. All you have to do is carry this type of “positive thinking” and “empowerment” to its logical conclusion, which is: if you have complete control over what you want, then you must have wanted to get sick.
That’s preposterous. Does this mean the millions of poor, suffering third world inhabitants who are born into suffering and have almost no hope of getting out of it want this misfortune? Or that, if you want negativity in your life, because of self-esteem issues or the like, you would have to wait for a serious disease to strike? That’s just silly. It’s ridiculously easy to make negativity happen; you can just go out and get into a car accident, or overdose on drugs, or commit a crime, or engage in any number of other dangerous and self-destructive acts. If you want negativity in your life, you can find it. People do so all the time. You can see examples everywhere you look. And not one of them has anything to do with waiting around to contract a serious illness.
But the most glaring logical fallacy is, I believe, this: Say you’ve practiced the LOA and have had good results; good things have come into your life and you’re an outspoken proponent of its power and virtue. Let’s also say you’re health conscious, eating well, exercising regularly, and keeping your stress level at a minimum.
Then you get sick.
How do you explain that to yourself?
You have to come up with all sorts of Ptolemaic circles of logic to uncover your hidden negativity, the “source” of your illness. And you’ll find something, because we all have buried pain, and telling yourself you’ve figured it out will make you feel better, giving you a sense of control over your fate.
Then you get sicker.
Now what? Do you dig deeper? Look even further down for the negativity “causing” your illness? Commit to even greater levels of wellness and nutrition and meditation and positive thinking? All of which are fine, but none of which guarantee—and in your heart of hearts, you know this—a full recovery?
Because the truth is that sometimes we get sick. In fact, we’re all going to eventually get sick and eventually die. If we’re lucky we can put it off until old age, but there’s no way to avoid it.
And this brings us to the real reason for all blame-the-victim—oops, I mean “empowerment”—mentalities: they allow us to feel in control of things we have no control over. If it’s ourselves, we can “take charge” of our health and figure out where we “went wrong” so we can fix it. If it’s somebody else, we can feel immune, safe in the belief that he did something to bring it on himself. Nobody wants to believe it could be as simple as bad luck because that means we, too, are susceptible.
But it is that simple. Otherwise, everyone who’s “deserved” to suffer and die a horrible death (such as Hitler, Stalin, and maybe Dick Cheney) would, and decent people would never have bad luck or illness. That’s just not how life works. People can be fastidious about their health and still get sick; they can be cautious and sensible and still get unlucky. Conversely, people can smoke and drink and eat junk food and live to be 90, and they can live recklessly and never have a single repercussion. Sometimes, people get what they deserve, but not always. Luck, good and bad, is a huge part of life, and while we have control over our choices (and should exercise that control to the best of our ability), we have no control whatsoever over our luck.
It’s not that positive thinking and healthy habits aren’t good; of course they are. But believing that they can save us from being human, and that being human—that is, getting sick—is somehow bad or immoral, well, that’s an unhealthy extreme that does way more harm than good in the world. It’s a childish, unrealistic, and highly negative way to view illness, misfortune, and life in general.
In many ways, people have personal agency exactly backwards. We tend to blame external factors for things we actually do have the power and responsibility to change (our career, our weight, our anxiety, our depression, our relationships), but hold ourselves accountable for misfortunes we have almost no control over at all. In matters of life and death, it seems, the illusion of control takes precedence over accepting our fate and doing the best we can with it. I find it absolutely, tragically insane that the most popular “empowerment” movements of today support this illusion, implicitly or otherwise.
So when Samantha vehemently refused to see her cancer as her fault, she wasn’t rejecting treatment and care and good health; she was rejecting the facile idea that she was to blame for getting sick. Talk about life-affirming! There is no better way to look at illness than this. It is the most life-validating view, totally judgment-free, and it liberates you to pour all your energy and focus into getting better. You may or may not, but at least you’re seeing your fate through mature eyes and dealing with life on life’s terms. And if you’re doing that, then even illness can become an avenue for growth. Such was the case with Treya Wilber in Grace and Grit, a remarkable story about a woman’s journey of self-actualization through her battle with cancer.
That’s really the best any of us can do.