Kathleen O’Meal, from New York, active in nursing and medical science, e-mailed a thought-provoking response to my original article on chronic illness. Here is part of it:

Sometimes I wonder if we might get “bogged down” in believing in a kind of fatalistic manner, that “this is what Heavenly Father wants me to go through.”  And, perhaps in [some cases] that is what it is.  I do know of some folks who decided not to enjoy the blessings of their “chronic” disease and are enjoying better health than they have experienced in their lives before becoming ill.  I have to wonder, “How much control are we allowed (by Heavenly Father) to have over our health and what do we need to know and do in order to be healthy?”  Regardless of challenges, can we self-determine our way to better health? Just how powerful of a healing mechanism is innately programmed into our core genetic script (and can damages to such be overcome)?  What is the relationship between the Spirit of the Lord, our own thoughts and intents and our own immune systems?

What was the spiritual and physical mechanism that returned Job to health and strength?  What must I do in order to really treat this flesh I have been given stewardship over, in a way that pleases Heavenly Father?  What are the Celestial rules, the cause and effect, regarding this flesh in this telestial environment?  I think there is much more to know.  One thing is for certain, and that is, this flesh needs CONSTANT attention – and yet, we must give constant attention to the Lord’s Spirit and look outside of ourselves also.

The complexity of the chronic illness issue astounds me. I would like to invite reader response on the above questions and also those I’ve written in the paragraphs below.

How can I know when I have done all I can feasibly do to get well? Is there ever a point when I should quit looking for answers and just accept things as they are? How does God see my health situation? Am I open to His guidance for the next step for me? How much of the healing process is my own responsibility? When can I expect the Lord’s intervention in my behalf? What do I believe about healing blessings? How strong is my faith? What beliefs could be blocking my faith to be healed? How can I be sure whether it is God’s will to heal me or whether I have lessons to learn from this illness? When Jesus healed – restored sight, hearing, were the recipients of his healing power healed on every level?  If my illness has many stress, trauma, diet, lifestyle components, if I were healed physically but didn’t change my lifestyle and false belief system, would I recreate the illness in a matter of time?

How much of the disease process is connected to unwise choices? Are poor health choices or choices that accelerate energy-draining stress like sins that can be forgiven if I repent of them and change my choices? Do they fall under the umbrella of the Atonement or are they a separate issue?  If they can be forgiven, does that forgiveness include healing of the health-compromising affects those choices have had on my body? What is my belief system in regard to illness? Do I believe there is a purpose in all illness – even the kind brought on by my poor choices? What about the emotional and spiritual issues that affect health?

What part does illness really play in the tutoring process of mortality? Wilford Woodruff and Spencer W. Kimball had a lot – but many times they were healed and restored to health so they could serve. Sometimes the prophets and apostles haven’t been healed. Some have lived in poor health for years. Can a person be whole spiritually, mentally and emotionally while being very ill physically?

The answers to some of these questions are based on eternal principles and apply to us all, some may be so personal and individual that the answer would be different for each person. I have strong opinions on some of these issues, and on others wonder if I will be given the full answers until the next life. I have probably posed more questions than I can find  answers for. However, as we share our experiences and our opinions, there is no doubt we can together obtain a greater hope and a clearer view.

Readers Cite Lessons Learned

There seems to be no doubt that important spiritual lessons can be learned from the experience of illness. Two responses suffice:

  • The lessons I have learned from this [chronic illness] are incredible. Knowing the Lord’s timing on things is so good and things I learned several years ago that helped prepare me for this struggle. I just have so much more to learn…Thank you for your articles and taking the time even when it isn’t easy to reach out to others and share your struggles and joy. It make me feel less alone.  Angela Hanley, Oregon
  • This “wake-up” call has been the best thing that has happened to me in a very long time.  I am so aware of my loving Father and Savior’s tender compassion for us all.  My morning has been full of tears of awe and worship toward Them.”  Colleen, Utah

Upcoming Articles May Shed Some Light

Illness is an inevitable part of mortality. Many receive wakeup calls, great lessons in humility, deepened perspective, experience of God’s love in time of physical crisis.

But for those of us with chronic illness, the question looms – does God really want us to STAY sick? Is there no end to this condition while I’m in mortality? No healing balm? No doubt, physical crisis can wake us up, motivate needed changes, turn us to the Lord. Most of can weather a short illness quite well. Family and friends have little trouble being supportive during an acute health crisis that has a name and a predicted ending.  But what about staying sick? Living with an illness that never goes away is so draining for all involved.

Many readers that responded to my article have been led to answers or partial answers – pieces of the puzzle – to their own health dilemmas. I’m preparing an article compiling reader suggestions and adding some of my own.

I’m also doing an article on identity – how illness, old age, disability can shake our identity. Some find their identity shattered; others find a solid identity for the first time. Are there ways we can build on the Rock so our identity remains solid regardless of the wind or waves of adversity or illness that pound upon it?

Learning to discern the Spirit – to sort out the voices in our minds and know and follow the Lord’s personal revelation to us seems to be the most important lesson we could learn in regard to our health as well as every other facet of life.  I’m finishing an article about that.

As I hear more from you, I’m certain other articles will be necessary in order to share your insights. (Little did I know that this would turn into a series!)  If there is one thing for sure, it is that we can benefit from sharing with and supporting each other. No one need feel alone in facing such common problems.

Some health challenges are specific to us as Church members, such as questions about the Word of Wisdom.

Word of Wisdom Issues

Esther, from California, brought up another sensitive spiritual issue: “At times I really get depressed and wonder where the promises of keeping the Word of Wisdom are in my life, especially after a life of not drinking, smoking or doing drugs.”

So many of us have wondered that. A counselor gave me a new view of the Word of Wisdom when she told me that with the health problems I was born with, coupled with the effects of a fever high enough to kill me before I was two, dental problems that have affected my whole system, and an addiction-prone personality, that if I hadn’t known and lived the Word of Wisdom I would not have made it to adulthood. I have also been reminded that there is much more to the Word of Wisdom than abstaining from the bad stuff. So many times we forget the positive counsel to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and to eat meat sparingly. Progress in living the positives has undoubtedly helped prolong my life to this point – although I certainly don’t know what it is like to “run and not be weary.”

The Many Factors Involved in Illness

My friend Susan, who has studied health for many years and is trained in NLP, explains that there are actually four healing continuums – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual, and they are all intertwined (for example, the mind-body connection has been well documented in the past few decades.)

Illness is a complex issue at best. There are so many contributing factors, come we have little control over, such as

  • genetics – inherited weaknesses and tendencies,
  • accidents – which can  leave us impaired, with chronic pain, and all manner of disabilities.
  • Pollution of air, water, food can contribute to or cause illness.
  • diseases that have little or no relation to lifestyle or choice.

Some illnesses are closely connected to lifestyle. They are often called “preventable” because they can be prevented or stopped in their progress or even reversed by changing:

  • Diet:  Junk food was aptly named and can contribute to and exacerbate many health problems. Previous articles on Meridian have given precise information on this problem.” You become what you eat” has been proved many times over – yet health-care practitioners will tell you that many people would rather die than change their diet.
  • A sedentary lifestyle: Lack of exercise is a huge contributing factor to weakening the body and making us more disease-prone.
  • Stress and emotional trauma weaken the immune system and can leave us more susceptible to all kinds of illnesses. (Certainly we don’t choose many of life’s stressors, but we do choose how we respond to them, and many times we have a choice concerning the environment we place ourselves in and can choose less stressful surroundings.)
  • False belief systems put us at odds with the laws of the universe and can weaken the body on a cellular level. Examples: Believing that the actions of others “cause” our anger or upset – that we are innocent victims. Believing that our happiness depends on externals and on our ability to please everyone around us.
  • Spiritual conflicts and disobedience to promptings can weaken the immune system.
  • Negative thoughts put a whole different set of chemicals into the bloodstream than positive, light-giving thoughts.
  • Negative words and deeds: Every one affects our health and well-being.

In his book Mormon Doctrine, Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “The book of Life is the record of the acts of man as such record is written in their own body. It is the record engraven in the very bones, sinews, and flesh of the mortal body – that is every thought, word and deed has an effect on the human body. All these leave their marks, marks which can be read by Him who is eternal, as easily as the words in a book can be read!”

Working on One Factor at a Time

My friend and counselor, Ed McCormack, had polio as a child and has suffered with poor health all his life. He writes, “I’ve learned that the worst thing is to do nothing to help myself. Better is to treat my condition, whatever it is, as if it were one big problem (as named by the diagnosis). Then at least I am doing something about it. But treating it as one big problem can make me kind of passive, too. Maybe I just take my meds, or maybe I think I just have to live with the situation as it is. Or maybe I rely passively on the doctors for “treatment” of that one big problem. Or maybe, unawares to myself, I might simply wait to “see what happens.”

Best is to see my situation as a set of contributing factors and to take action to improve each one.  I make the most progress when I try to identify the factors, then make a plan for small improvements, one factor at a time, and don’t expect any one factor to be “the answer.” It is interesting and satisfying to see how much progress I can make on various factors which contribute to my overall situation. The natural aging process, of course, is to gradually decline and then check out. That’s “according to merciful plan of the great Creator” (2 Nephi 9:6).

But in the meantime, all the way along, life can be much better by improving on single factors. I find that the Spirit supports the principle of small improvements on single factors. I find there are always ways to make things a little better. It takes a certain spirit to want to keep making small improvements even though we are naturally declining as part of the wisdom of life. I think that spirit is part of the gift of the Holy Ghost, part of the Comforter. That is what I am learning. Maybe we need to pray for that spirit more.”

Turning Toward the Savior

I have personally witnessed Brother McCormack’s amazing faith and spiritual growth in the face of daunting physical challenges. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and coming unto Him in our weaknesses of every kind can bring us to the knowledge that Christ’s atonement will somehow, sometime reach to heal all illness. “Thus saith the Lord… I have heard thy prayer, I have seen they tears: behold, I will heal thee (2 Kings 20:5). Christ came with “healing in His wings” and we can claim that healing promise – on His terms.

The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ is all-encompassing relative to the pain or suffering of any individual or human being.  Our challenge is to learn to love Him by feeling His love for us, learn to access and accept that healing power, always turning towards Him, not away from Him – regardless of the duration of our illness.

Colleen Harrison, in her book He Did Deliver Me from Bondage, assures us that all afflictions are to bring us to Christ. It is my prayer for each of us that no matter what our individual affliction, that we may respond to it by turning to the Light and Life of the World, the great Healer, the Savior.