Spirituality and Illness: The Search for Meaning in Life

Spirituality and Illness: The Search for Meaning in Life

Spirituality, derived from the study of philosophy, can help us deal with grave illness. It can lead both patients and their caregivers to a greater understanding of the meaning of life.

By Nancy Hassett Dahm

Cancer has a way of leading people toward a search for meaning. While many of us find comfort in our religion, there may be a greater opportunity in finding meaning through spirituality. Some may say they are the same, but I define spirituality and religion differently. Spirituality is a connection to, and reverence for, all that is universal. Spirituality has no doctrine, no formal rules for a belief system. Religion, on the other hand, is grounded in, well, ground rules.

A diagnosis of cancer compels a person to ask the ultimate human questions: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “What happens to me after I’m gone?” I believe that religion and spirituality have a very important place when confronting these complex, existential issues. Although we rarely acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, having cancer begs us to look our mortality right in the eye – the very seat of our soul.

But acknowledging mortality equates to embracing vulnerability. Alas, each of us must accept that we are not in control; that we all acquiesce at some point to a “higher authority.” If you are like most people, the depth of your spiritual connection is akin to being in the shallow end of the pool. You may explore various depths and often marvel at seemingly limitless unanswered questions and mysteries, until you accept that the far end of the “pool” is really the boundless, deep end of a magnificent ocean.

Like most people, I’m learning, and I’m finding new avenues to search for meaning, significance, and greater purpose in life.

As a nurse who has spent years caring for cancer patients, I realized long ago that people need to feel their life mattered in a significant way. Working with cancer patients, I have felt a responsibility to show them that they are loved and part of us all. Finding a way to bring them the peace of mind they could not give themselves has taken me on a search for greater spirituality – for myself as much as for them! In helping others I was finding my own road to understanding.

We all have the same concerns, but we typically internalize these life-meaning questions when we become seriously ill. Life has a way of shielding us from certain realities. We are, after all, living. Even with cancer, we are living, but often not very well. With cancer, we live mostly in fear of the unknown. With cancer, we are still fighting to live, and push away notions of an eventual mortal end. Although not all cancer patients die, and in fact most live, the confrontation with a disease that opens the door to our mortality pushes us to cling on to life.

So why is it important to have a sense of spirituality? It is important because it will help you to live better. It will help you to live with a heightened sense of hope and meaning. It will serve you in more ways than you realize. The beauty of spirituality is that it enables you to create your own private place of being. Is it prayer? It can be, but doesn’t have to be. Is it meditation? It can be, but again, doesn’t have to be. Spirituality is contemplating anything and everything in relation to your sense of being. It is about finding personal significance in the seemingly insignificant, to that which holds the greatest significance – your relationship with “God.”

I have found that philosophy has helped me develop a greater sense of spirituality. I use the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Marcus Aurelius to help cancer patients find meaning in their own lives. Philosophy is universal and non-sectarian, and speaks to the soul of most of us who are uncertain or fearful of the mysteries of life and death. Mostly, philosophy serves as a moral compass, teaching us the many ideals of a meaningful, purposeful life and the permanence of the soul. Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, for example, have a very calming effect on the mind. They make sense. After all, philosophy is grounded in logic. Often, the ideas of these philosophers are exactly what cancer patients – and everyone else – need. They provide the kind of connectivity to each upon another and a universe that teems with hope and joy.

So the benefits of using philosophy to increase your sense of spirituality are many. You will feel calmer, have less fear and anxiety. You will feel less stressed because your focus will be on reading reassuring messages of life. You will probably feel a weight lifted from your shoulders when you realize that we all make mistakes, and you will “see the fountain of good within you.” You will learn to live a mindful life, paying attention to the often missed little things and increasing your awareness of everything around you.

For example, you may come to relish how the coffee smells in the morning, the simple beauty of the feel of a hand in yours, the texture of flowers, the feel of the wind on your face, and how the light filters through your window. Just reading what the philosophers have said may very well take you from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end of spiritual comfort.

I leave you with a section of Cicero’s On the Republic – Scipio’s Dream (51 B.C.):

“Strive on indeed, and be sure that it is not you that is mortal, but only your body. For that man whom your outward form reveals is not yourself; the spirit is the true self, not that physical figure which can be pointed out by the finger. Know, then, that you are a god, if a god is that which lives, feels, remembers and foresees, and which rules, governs and moves the body over which it is set, just as the supreme God, above us rules this universe. And just as the eternal God moves the universe, which is partly mortal, so an immortal spirit moves the frail body.”

Nancy H. Dahm is the author of Mind, Body and Soul – A Guide to Living With Cancer (Taylor Hill Publishing, 2001). This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.

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