Friday, September 18, 2020
Culture Examined Life When our bodies break down

When our bodies break down

On the dark journey through illness or injury, we meet a stranger we’ve known all along: our self.


EXAMINED LIFE No one plans for sickness. We plan for busy schedules and vacation time and meeting deadlines. We plan for school and for retirement, for weekends and for seasons. But we don’t build time into our lives for the possibility of a broken leg, a bout of bronchitis, a surprise tumor, or a bursting appendix. I certainly didn’t.

But at the start of January, as I was heading into a particularly busy month of work, I found myself up one night for many hours with intense abdominal pain. The next day, I went to the doctor, specifically stating that I thought I might have appendicitis. I was diagnosed instead with a virus, and sent home with an antacid. I spent the following two weeks in varying states of agony until, finally, another doctor agreed to send me for a CT scan. Turns out, I did have appendicitis and had been walking around for two weeks with a partially ruptured appendix and a resulting massive intestinal infection. 

During the weeks of my pain and confusion, I was riding on a surreal merry-go-round of sensations, emotions, and mind states. There were moments in the day that I could place my attention elsewhere, and focus on my work instead of my health situation. But in other moments, I would simply be in so much pain, I could do nothing but seclude myself and cry. Other times, I would feel the strange voice of gratitude reminding me that, despite how bad I felt, at least I had a safe place to feel it. Sometimes, I would give over to self-pity. Then, a voice would emerge in my consciousness telling me to stop feeling sorry for myself, only to be followed by another voice reminding me that it wasn’t necessarily self-pity to note the fortitude it took to be with and bear my pain. 

I both raged at and deeply cared for the different voices as they each had their say. In my most lucid moments, I would start to see my pain as an undeniable presence in my life that I had no control over, but that I had to share space with. My pain was not an optional guest in the house of my body; it lived there and it was speaking to me—often in the wee hours of night, when I had no choice but to listen. 

During one particularly rough evening, a strange feeling came over me. I was in so much pain, that the pain itself became a wonder that I had to bow to. I could feel its waves and pulsations, but could do nothing more than witness them. Something in me shifted from trying to subdue my discomfort to simply meeting it, like I was meeting the stranger of myself. Perhaps it was my future self or the estranged child that I once was, or the lucid and awake part in each of us that shows up in times like these to meet us and to carry us. In that moment, I knew not what was happening to me. The questions floated through me like tiny bubbles in wild ocean foam. Might I die from this thing? Might I have something uncurable? Might this never end? But as each one bubbled, they’d quickly dissolve again, and all that was left was some deep and primal form of surrender. It doesn’t really matter because this is how it is. 

In times of intense experiences of physical suffering, we are catapulted into the rawest revelation of the truth of our existence, the recognition of the contract we’ve each signed, unknowingly or not, with life, itself. This contract, which we agree to upon our passage into this world, states that, in our lives, there are two things that will undoubtedly happen. The first is that, one day, we will each die. The second is that we will each experience bodily suffering at the hands of an illness. Many other wondrous things will also likely occur, but it is these two wonders of which we can be certain. 

The thing with contracts is that we often don’t think about them unless we need to. You may sign a contract for employment with a company, but until your first expense reimbursement request gets denied, you may not read the clause about a monthly cap on spending. Or you get a new credit card, but not bother to look at the late fee policy until, oops, you accidentally miss a payment and get charged the cost of a small island. In the same way, when we are ill or facing the possibility of death, and decrying its unfairness, we have to pause and remember this sacred contract we have with life, and the terms we agreed to. 

This doesn’t, in any way, relieve responsibility from the people and institutions that fail us in a health crisis. I have very strong emotions around being dismissed (and charged for it) in our troubled health system, and I’m not alone in my experience. It is wholly appropriate for us to speak out against unjust conditions. But it is also undeniable that, for each of us, there will be moments in our lives when our suffering is too large for righteousness, when there is no fight left within us. In those moments, what we really need is refuge. 

It doesn’t feel good to watch our own bodies break apart and break down; at times, we may view it as a punishment or a curse. But when we do so, we miss the very essence of our humanity. Just as manifestation is our birthright, so is dissolution. In essence: We were made for this. 

When we remember this truth, a courage rises up to help us hold it. When we face our own physical suffering and humanity, we enter a room through which every person ever born has passed, a room in which all of our daily troubles (from relationship anxieties to the never-ending questions about our life purpose), as well as future concerns (like career goals or insufficient retirement savings) evaporate, and all that is left is that fiercely awake, undeniable presence. We remember, in these moments, that every moment might be our last; we are reminded of the awe inherent in our brief and precious lives. 

Moments like these remind me that while a peak experience is often thought of as a positive or ecstatic experience, it isn’t always. Rather, it’s an experience in which our consciousness is dropped like a pebble into the lake of shared humanity, and we realize the truth of our own existence. While waking up to the sacredness inherent in our bodily suffering doesn’t make it pleasant, it can offer the sweetness of surrender, which changes the way we move through the world. It reminds us that, even on the darkest road of pain or illness, when we feel hopeless and terribly alone, we are walking the path that every human walks—and we can show up to meet ourselves out there, and carry ourselves through. 

Karen Macklin
Karen Macklin is a writer, life coach, and teacher of yoga and mindfulness in San Francisco. See more about her at

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