Gratitude: In Sickness and Health

The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes our experience as a perpetual transitioning between unreflective consciousness, “living-in-the-world,” and reflective consciousness, “thinking-about-the-world.” Gratitude seems to necessitate an act of reflection on experience, which, in turn, requires a certain abstraction away from that direct experience. Paradoxically, our capacity for gratitude is simultaneously enhanced and frustrated as we strive to attain it.

Perhaps, then, there is an important difference between reflecting on wellness and experiencing wellness. My habitual understanding of gratitude had me forcefully lodging myself into the realm of reflective consciousness, pulling me away from living-in-the-world. I was constantly making an inventory of my wellness, too busy counting the coins to ever spend them.

Gratitude, in the experiential sense, requires that we wade back into the current of unreflective consciousness, which, to the egocentric mind, can easily feel like an annihilation of consciousness altogether. Yet, Sartre says that action that is unreflective isn’t necessarily unconscious. There is something Zen about this, the actor disappearing into the action. It is the way of the artist in the act of creative expression, the musician in the flow of performance. But, to most of us, it is a loss of self — and the sense of competency that comes with it.

My attempts to harness the vibrancy of illness have largely been to avoid this plunge into the present. Before cancer, I would strain forward to my future self, the one who had already endured loss. He was the older sage that I have always intuited — helplessly, hopelessly — I am on my way to becoming.

After cancer, I’ve clamored backward to my past self — the one who knew pain, the glaring absence of things. He was the younger, battle-tested soldier whose courage I feel, on most days, has been lost.

Both these selves are removed from me now — not by distance, but by degree. The sage is lost to speculation while the soldier is trapped on the other side of some existential barrier that even memory — no matter how vivid and haunting — cannot penetrate. There is grief in realizing that, in holding one’s ear to that wall, exiled to the other side of pain.

I am left with one thing: my ordinary, present self who is as empty-handed as he was the day before diagnosis — no better equipped for the ensuing battles of life, no better shielded from pain he will yet face. And it is not just heroic pain. It is the hurt of parking tickets, the ache of commuting, the grief of deadening routine — small pains to which I was immune while they were eclipsed by cancer. But that moon has since passed.

And yet, that isn’t reason for despair. It’s strangely consoling to be reminded of my failure, to remember that my efforts to be prepared for epic loss were mostly in vain. I wasn’t ready then, and yet, I got through it. I won’t be ready next time, but I have reason (and experience) to believe that I will get through it again.

If there is any sage in me, he says I must accept the vulnerability of letting the pain fade, of allowing the wounds to heal. Even in the wake of grave illness — or, more unsettlingly, in anticipation of it — we must risk falling back asleep into wellness.

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