Do sick people always want to get better?
Hang with me, here. I understand that’s a jarring question. Plus, there are many ways one might be considered “sick” — physically, mentally, emotionally. But I invite you to suspend judgment for just a moment as I explore the above question.
I’ll start with a story found in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John involving a pool that, according to legend, had healing powers when the waters were stirred — but only for the first person in the pool once the water began to ripple. Because of this, the pool became a hot spot for the sick, blind, lame and paralyzed, including one sick man who’d been living at the pool’s edge for 38 years.
One afternoon while in town for a festival, Jesus notices the sick man and, knowing he’d been sick for a very long time, asks him, “Do you want to get well?”
Again I acknowledge the oddness of such a question. Of course the man wants to be well, right? Yet listen to how the man responds, “I don’t have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I’m trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me.” Instead of telling Jesus, “Yes, I want to get well,” he offers excuses as to why it hadn’t happened yet.
For years, when I read or heard this story, I would roll my eyes at this man. Annoyed that instead of trying to get better, or even wanting to get better, he seems content to blame others and play the victim. (I imagine you can think of a person or two in your own life that fits such a description, yes?) Today, though, when I read this story, it hits differently, and I get the impression that my previous perspective was overly informed by the fact that I hadn’t yet experienced the kind of life-altering, world-shattering suffering that legitimately can create a context wherein a struggling, suffering person might balk at wanting to get well.
Now, don’t mishear me. This isn’t intended to be some kind of victim-blaming article. My perspective on this is not as one who is healthy, looking askance at miserable unwell folks and patronizingly declaring that they must just want to remain in such a saddened state. No, I write this while in the midst of one of the most agonizing seasons of my 40 trips around the sun. I recently endured an event that plunged me into the greatest grief I’ve ever known. And if that weren’t enough, the grief also activated trauma from my childhood that I’ve spent decades trying to — like a contestant on “Survivor” — outwit, outplay and outlast. So to put it bluntly: I am currently on the sick side of the emotional and psychological wellness spectrum.
Trust me when I say I’m not here to wax eloquently from atop my high horse of health and wellbeing about the ways in which the sick are malcontents who simply have no desire to be or get better. I’m here to attest to how hitting a kind of rock bottom of unwellness, saturated in the grim despair of how hard life can be, has a way of forcing a reconsideration on the opinion that “of course, sick people want to get better.” I know that sounds counterintuitive, but I think it’s true.
A quick aside: I want to acknowledge that, for some readers, my admission to currently being not-well was a cue to stop reading. You may feel as though my present state of mind renders me an unreliable narrator on such matters. That my insight cannot be trusted because my head isn’t on straight, or because my heart is buried in grief. If that’s you, then I get it. That would have been my opinion up until a year ago or so. But what if it actually makes the most sense to hear from the very person who is, at this moment, floundering through the air like discarded husks threshed by the flail of life? What if only ever hearing from healthy people, or only hearing from people once they get better, skews the data? Sure, I submit that a sick person’s perspective could be blemished by their sickness. But can’t that also be said of a recently healed person? Meaning, the just-got-better person will reasonably compare their current state (I feel better!) with their former state (I feel horrible!) and declare, “Why yes, of course, I prefer this to that!”
But when you’re in it … when you’re drowning in a sea of sorrow … when the dark night of your soul has pinned your tail to the donkey of despair … when you can’t remember what you used to love about life … it can feel overwhelming to consider conjuring up a desire to get well, let alone then do the work it would require. I think that this “in the midst of suffering” perspective matters, too. I think the voices of the unwell are worth listening to.
Which is what this article is for me. My attempt to offer my voice for your consideration. I am the man by the pool preferring to blame others and play the victim rather than leap at the opportunity to get better. And that is wild to me that I just wrote that sentence. If you would’ve asked me a couple years back to predict how I would handle a season such as the one I’m enduring, I would’ve told you I’d muster the grit to get better. I would’ve anticipated kicking my sorrow in the face as I stormed my way toward wellness. I would’ve believed with all my heart that I would want to get better.
Maybe that’s you, too. Maybe when I tell you about my nights where I cry myself to sleep, or if I describe the moments when I can’t see how life will ever not feel this bad, you might assume that of course I want to feel better. That sounds reasonable, I suppose. You’re not absurd for assuming that I’d want this grief to rescind back from whence it came and, like low-tide retrieving its tired waves, reveal solid ground for me to continue on in my journey. Why wouldn’t I long for this sadness to be replaced by joy? Why aren’t I clamoring for my sorrow to be swapped for peace? Why would I not ache for my darkness to be cleansed by light?
And yet, here we are. Here I am. Telling you it’s not that simple for me.
Don’t get me wrong, the burning sensation that consumes my heart when grief strikes is not something I enjoy. The panic attacks in the middle of the grocery store, the needing friends to come get me because I’m frozen in parking lots and can’t move, the falling apart at restaurants because I suddenly can’t breathe, these are not moments I wish to repeat. And yet, at the same time, imagining “being better” somehow feels … frightening. As though if I start feeling better, then it will mean that I’ve moved on. And if I’ve moved on, that feels like … closure? Finality? Permanence?
So as bizarre as it might sound, I find myself not wanting to get better because I still resent that what happened in my life happened. And I tell myself that as long as I’m still grieving it, I’m still fighting it. And as long as I’m still fighting, it’s almost like it hasn’t fully or truly happened.
Perhaps this is why they say acceptance is the final stage in grief.
Looking back in my life, I’m not proud of the posture I had toward folks who were in states like the one I’m in right now. I’d like to think I was at least kind and respectful about it, but I’m sure they felt judged by me. Like I was impatient with them. Like I wanted them to quit making excuses and just get in the pool and be healed.
I hope when I make it through this season of my life that I’ll come out transformed for the better. My instincts tell me that I might receive the gift of a deeper compassion toward those in grief, sadness and depression. The kind of compassion where, instead of rolling my eyes at those who don’t just want to get better, I’ll sit down next to them, by the pool, ready to help when the waters next stir.
Colby Martin co-founded Sojourn Grace Collective, a progressive Christian church in San Diego. He is the author of “UnClobber: Rethinking our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality” and “The Shift: Surviving and Thriving after Moving from Conservative to Progressive Christianity.” You can reach him at [email protected]