What Philosophy Can Teach You About Living Well with Chronic Illness

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 15 October 2018
  • 15 minute read
What Philosophy Can Teach You About Living Well with Chronic Illness | The Health Sessions

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Living with chronic illness can turn your world upside down. Everything you used to believe about yourself, about life and the way the world works may change. How can you make sense of your new identity and altered reality?

Philosophy studies the fundamental nature of existence, reality and knowledge. In a nutshell, it tries to ask and answer questions about how we should live and think. With thousands of years of wisdom from all around the world integrated into theories and practices, can philosophy teach us how to have a positive and meaningful life despite our health problems?

Have a look at these 5 existential lessons from philosophy that will change the way you live with chronic illness.

1. Not Too Little, Not Too Much 

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One of the first problems you’re faced with when you get sick is that you can no longer do things the way you used to. Being exhausted, in pain and suffering from all kinds of symptoms forces you to prioritize. You need to spend your energy wisely: just enough to look after yourself and tackle your to-do list, but not so much that your health problems get worse.

In Sweden, there’s a name for this balanced way of living: lagom. Lagom is an untranslatable word that means something like “not too little, not too much, just right”. And according to Linnea Dunne, author of Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balance Living, this concept might just be the secret why Sweden ranks the lists of happiest countries to live.

The Lagom lifestyle of moderation counteracts modern problems of too much stress, too much screen-time, too much consuming. When you focus on what you need without living in excess, you’re left with what truly matters to you. That’s why Swedish culture revolves around a good work-life balance with time for relaxation, moving your body outdoors instead of working out in the gym and making healthy meals from scratch while still enjoying their famous fika. Lagom is about choosing a few high-quality essentials you love instead of wasting precious time, energy and natural resources on junk food, fast fashion and FOMO.

So what can we learn from the concept of lagom about living well with chronic illness?

  • Pacing is about finding the right balance between activities and rest for your unique situation. The purpose of pacing is to try to get meaningful things done without pushing yourself too far. Lagom means knowing when enough is enough. That’s why the Swedish make enough time for coffee breaks and relaxed family time. You can embrace the lagom lifestyle by alternating activity with rest, stopping before you become (too) exhausted and resting effectively.
  • Applying lagom also helps to conserve energy with chronic illness, by embracing minimalism or better, essentialism. Having less possessions means less clutter, cleaning and organizing. Make your household easier to run by getting rid of the superfluous stuff in your life: limit the flow of paper coming into your home, create a place for everything or curate a capsule wardrobe.
  • Lagom reminds us that healthy living can be much easier than what the media is showing you. You don’t need superfoods, complicated wellness routines or trendy workouts to improve your health and happiness. Moving your body in natural ways you enjoy, making simple meals from local and seasonal foods and taking time for relaxation are just as good to build a sustainable healthy lifestyle.
  • From a lagom persepctive, lasting happiness is as much about facing problems and coming up with creative solutions as it is about enjoying small everyday moments of bliss. Lagom means being in touch with your feelings but not letting your feelings take over. When you’re ‘allowed’ to experience the full range of human emotions, there’s less need to wallow in the negative ones, making it easier to handle the inevitable bad things in life. When you’re going through tough times, try to perceive your feelings as an emotional compass to help you navigate through life. Let yourself feel your feelings, without judgement or interference, and then let them go.

You can read more about the Swedish art of balanced living in Lagom by Linnea Dunne.

2. Within Every Obstacle Is an Opportunity to Improve Your Condition

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Living with chronic illness can sometimes feel like running an obstacle course. It becomes a challenge to get even the simplest tasks done, which may leave you demoralized and defeated.

But according to the ancient Greeks, in every problem lies the chance to turn your adversity into an advantage. In his bestselling book The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday describes why the Stoic principles from Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are still relevant today and how they can be applied in our modern world.

One of the central notions of Stoicism is that we do not control external events, only our responses to what happens. It’s a practical philosophy that you can use as a tool to overcome unhelpful emotions and to take action even when the circumstances aren’t perfect. In a nutshell, Stoicism encourages you to see things for what they are, to do what you can, and to endure and bear what you must.

What can the practical philosophy of Stoicism teach us about coping with chronic illness? 

  • Become aware of the power of perception. Modern psychology confirms the Stoic observation that there’s the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means. The way we interpret stressful things that happen to us shapes how we respond to that event. It’s not easy, but try to see situations more objectively, without automatically labeling it ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but to a certain point, we can choose how we feel about it.
  • It’s the core premise of Ryan Holiday’s book: “Within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.” Adversity often teaches us the most important life lessons. And although I would never say that everything happens for a reason, I do believe that you can gain something meaningful from every bad situation. Even if you can’t physically improve your chronic condition, being ill might teach you how to listen to your body, that it’s ok to ask for help or not to take the good things in life for granted. Of course you wish you didn’t have to learn any of these lessons. But noticing the upside that comes with the obvious downsides might help you to accept your situation.
  • When life gets tough, the Stoics won’t tell you to “cheer up”. On the contrary: they’d say that bad things in life will inevitably happen and that you’ll get through it, if you “persist and resist”. You should get moving and stay moving, even if the circumstances aren’t ideal. According to the ancient Greeks, there’s boldness in taking action despite the reality of your obstacle. Don’t get too attached to the outcome, but try to finish the smallest task in front of you and finish it well.

Learn more about the timeless art of turning trials into triumph in The Obstacle Is The Way from Ryan Holiday.

3. Embody Sisu to Persevere Against All Odds

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When terrible things happen, how do you go on? The Finns have a word for the emotional endurance you need in situations when everything seems to be going wrong and there’s no way out: sisu.

During the brutally cold winter of 1939, an overpowering army of Soviet soldiers invaded Finnish territory, outnumbering the Finnish soldiers almost 3-to-1. Against all odds, the Finns held their ground and managed to fight the Soviet army to a standstill, by relying on their national virtue sisu.

Sisu is a mixture of courage, resilience and grit. It’s the mental toughness you need to endure when overwhelming adversity would force you to give up. In her book Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage, Joanna Nylund describes how you can adopt the attitude of determination and perseverance in modern days. Because if you want to grow a backbone and stand up for what you believe in, you need to take care of your body and mind so you can engage in activities that stretch your abilities. It also helps to get re-acquintained with nature – the harsh climate is one of the reasons why the Finns are so used to dealing with discomfort.

That’s great advice for healthy people, but chronic illness already pushes you way outside of your comfort zone almost every day.

How can you access sisu in the face of insurmountable challenges and hardship like chronic illness? 

  • Remember that adversity and hardship are normal, unavoidable parts of being human. Like the quote from ‘A League of Their Own’ goes: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” Being ill sucks, but it’s not your fault. Focus on the things you can influence – your thoughts, your behaviour, the people you surround yourself with – and don’t worry too much about the things you can’t control.
  • Adopt an action mindset. According to sisu expert Emilia Lahti, sisu encourages you to transform the way you look at limitations, by reframing challenges as learning experiences and opportunities to unlock your strengths. This mindset shapes how you approach problems: “do you shy away or do you keep your head up high and power through?” 
  • Build your resilience. Being able to bounce back from difficulties is a skill you can train, so you can get up quicker and stronger the next time life knocks you down. Sisu is like an extra gear of inner strength you can access in times of pain and despair.

If you want to learn more about discovering your inner strength, check out Sisu by Joanna Nylund.

4. Be Like Pooh and Flow With Life

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When you’re first diagnosed with a chronic illness, you search for every therapy that can cure you. After a while, your attention probably shifts to at least finding relief for the symptoms, pain and fatigue you’re experiencing. And when that’s not even possible, it may hit you: this is it for now. Every motivational message on social media tells you to ‘never give up’, to keep fighting. But is fighting your own body and mind always the best option?

Winnie-the-Pooh doesn’t think so.

In his timeless book The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff introduces mystistical Taoist principles through the relatable adventures of Pooh Bear and his friends. Taoism is an ancient Chinese system of beliefs, attitudes and practices that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, also known as The Way. Tao is the natural way of all things, a life force that cannot be put into words. According to this world view, nature is an ever-changing dynamic between two opposite forces – hot/cold, hard/soft, dark/light or Yin/Yang.

So what does this have to do with Winnie-the-Pooh? Well, it turns out that this simpleminded bear contains more wisdom than first meets the eye. Pooh is the perfect example of the Uncarved Block (coincidentally also known as P’u), which means that things in their natural state contain their own natural power. This power can easily goes to waste when its original simplicity is changed. You shouldn’t force a square peg in a round hole. Or as Pooh puts it: “A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.”

Which lessons can we learn from this enchanting bear and his Taoist ways?

  • You’re perfectly fine the way you are. All your imperfections, physical limitations and emotional baggage are part of what makes you you. As Pooh points out in his Cottleston Pie song, “things are as they are.” In life, everything has its own place and function. And like Benjamin Hoff adds: “When you know and respect your Inner Nature, you know where you belong. You also know where you don’t belong.” 
  • Stop resisting what is. Fighting hard against a situation you can’t change right now takes up a lot of energy. Lao Tse believed that the more you force a result, the more you ruin what was almost ready to happen. When it comes to living with chronic illness, this doesn’t mean you should just give up hope on ever getting better. Acceptance simply means you give up resisting what is and instead work within/with your circumstances to hopefully reach your own meaningful definition of recovery in the future. As the Tao of Pooh says: “Once you face and understand your limitations, you can work with them, instead of having them work against you and get in your way.” So follow the Taoists footsteps and take the path of least resistance. Flow with life, because in nature everything happens in its own way on its own time.
  • “Knowledge that comes from experience is more valuable than knowledge that doesn’t.” Winnie-the-Pooh may not be the cleverest thinker of the Hundred Acre Wood, but sometimes listening to your inner voice holds more wisdom than all the books you can read. Don’t overthink or overcomplicate things. Like Leonardo Da Vinci said, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. In a different way, this lesson also reminds you to listen to your body. Pooh Bear eats when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired. Pay attention to the signs your body’s sending you instead of strictly following a diet, workout plan or wellness routine. Learn to distinguish the physical sensations from the emotions and thoughts that arises a result.
  • What you focus on grows. In the Tiddely Pom song, Pooh and Piglet sing: “The more it snows, the more it goes.” Like a snowball, all things build up. The more you focus on things, good or bad, the more it grows. So stop negative things before they get out of control and remember that tiny positive habits can lead to big results over time.

Discover more ancient wisdom wrapped into a light-hearted tale in The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff.

5. Find Your Reason For Being

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When you can’t do the things you used to and have to rely on others, it can be hard to maintain your sense of self-worth and purpose. You might feel useless at times, confined within the four walls of your home. What’s the point of even getting out of bed in the morning?

It turns out that the answer to that question is one of the most powerful contributors to your health and happiness. Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means ‘reason for being’. Having a sense of purpose can enrich and extend your life: it promotes longevity and reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease. Maybe ikigai is the secret why Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world?

In their book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles describe how you can find your reason for being by asking yourself four questions: What do I love? What am I good at? What does the world need? And what can you be paid for? At the intersection of these four areas is where you’ll discover your ikigai.

That’s really helpful advice for healthy people, but what if you can no longer pursue your passions and talents because you’re too sick? How do you express your purpose when your illness stops you from having a job or doing volunteer projects?

What can we learn from the Japanese concept of ikigai about living a meaningful life with chronic illness?

  • Turn the negatives into positives. When you’re chronically ill, you may struggle to keep up with our fast-paced society or maintain a big social circle. Well, guess what? To unlock your ikigai, Garcia and Miralles advise you to adopt a slower pace of living, be in the moment and have deeper connections with the people and world around you. Those are exactly the things that you’re probably forced to do thanks to your illness. Instead of cursing the lonely hours in bed, maybe you can reframe these moments as time for self-relection, mindfulness and moving with purpose?
  • Celebrate the small things. In our modern world, our value as a person is often tied to our external success. But having ikigai isn’t about just about big goals and achievements; it exists in the little things in life. From savouring your meals and smiling to strangers to reading your kids a bedtime story, you can live by your values in many different ways, one not necessarily better than the other. And if you ever feel like your efforts don’t matter, remember the African proverb: ‘Anyone who thinks that they’re too small to make a difference has never tried to fall asleep with a mosquito in the room.” 
  • Find fulfillment in new ways. Instead of having specific goals that may be harder to accomplish with chronic illness, ask yourself, which values do you want to live by? What do you care deeply about? When you know what’s most important to you, you can start thinking about doable ways to express your ikigai. Because even when you’re sick, you can put your qualities to use and make a meaningful impact on the world around you. You can read more about how to still pursue your goals and dreams when you’re chronically ill here.
  • Connect. Having a purpose is centered around connections – connections with people, the world around you, your deepest self and spiritual beliefs. Whenever you need to reinforce your reasons for getting out of bed in the morning, rekindle your sense of belonging. Head out into nature if you can for a forest bath or a simple walk in the park. Call your mom, cuddle your pet or do a loving-kindness meditation to feel connected.
  • Always remember, you are still worthy and loved. No matter your situation, you can still spread kindness and wisdom in your own unique way.

Uncover your own reason for being by reading Ikigai by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles.

What has philosophy taught you about living well with chronic illness?

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like 5 Positive Psychology Books for a Happy, Fulfilling Life or How to Flourish in the Face of Adversity.

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