The Meaning of Disease

Does disease have a meaning specifically related to person who has it?   In 21st-century Western Society, disease is generally seen as caused by physical, chemical or ecological factors.  Predisposition to certain diseases are thought to arise from genetic influences,  germs, poor diet, or harmful effects of the environment. These are the things that most physicians focus on when treating patients.   But this was not always the case.

A bodily disease which we look upon as whole and entire within itself, may, after all, be but a symptom of some ailment in the spiritual part. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

William Osler, known as the Father of Modern Medicine, practiced in North America around the beginning of the last century.  One of his favourite sayings was:

Listen to the patient. He is telling you the diagnosis.

This has often been interpreted as indicating the importance of taking a medical history, but could also mean that the patient’s story about himself and his illness, contains the seeds of the cause of the illness, the meaning the disease has for the patient,  and the reasons it has arisen.

Disease may be thought of as a manifestation of health. It is the healthy response of an organism striving to maintain physical, psychological, and spiritual equilibrium…instead of being meaningless, people’s problems become diseases of meaning, enabling people to see that things are not necessarily “going wrong” but are, in fact, helping them become stronger, to live more fully and with more understanding. Seen from this perspective, depression; cancer; heart disease; neuro-degenerative and autoimmune disease; dementia; and conditions such as community violence, genocide, and the problem of environmental devastation are “diseases of meaning.” Kim A. Jobst et al. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. December 1999, 5(6): 495-502.

When deeply listening to patients, doctors and other health-care professionals are listening as much to what is not being said, as to what is being said; listening to the back story as well as to the facts about symptoms and time of onset;  and listening for the pain in other areas of the patient’s life besides the body. Unfortunately, the way that medicine is practiced today does not allow much, if any, time for deep listening.

Psychiatry is one area where physicians have time to listen, but many psychiatrists believe that psychiatric illness arises from a deficiency of certain brain chemicals and so rely on drugs as the first line of treatment.  Deep listening is not routinely practiced.  However, this is not true of all psychiatrists.

(What we need)…is a science that acknowledges the existence of an inner self, one that views a person not merely as a ‘pack of neurons’   but as a human being, a science that views anxiety not merely  as a chemical imbalance in the brain but as a wake-up call for the soul.” Eli Frattaroli. Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain: Becoming Conscious in an Unconscious World.

So if you have a condition you are trying to heal, maybe ask yourself what meaning this disease might have in your life.  In Finding the Meaning in Your Disease I will suggest some questions you could ask and resources you can use to help identify the meaning of your disease.

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3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Disease

  1. I really find this is a great interesting subject. Never looked at this subject in this manner. If you are planning to write some more articles about this subject, I definitely will be back soon!

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