Living with an illness can foster “an ability to live in the present” and a “capacity to understand the fragility and transience of life and nonetheless appreciate it.” Looking back might give us nostalgia—what we once were—looking forward might be scary and uncertain. Ill people have these two reasons to embrace the flowing present. Life is now.
No doubt two years with cancer impacted the way I experienced time, and I mean this in two ways. For instance, after my first surgery, going on a trip away from the house had new time constraints imposed. I had to be sure to have the pain meds I would need to get me through the estimated hours. Also, the daily mundane activities become their own involved process. For instance, the rigmarole of washing my body while avoiding all the bandages went from being a series quick, mindless moves in preparation for the day to a major undertaking for the day.
Not only does the encumbrance of a damaged body impact the rate at which we complete tasks, but it also impacts what our time means. This brings us right to the heart of things; what our time means implicates the way it is spent, our way of being in the world.
Upon diagnosis, all my moments became a call to shine. My illness, at times, seemed to deteriorate the possibility of a fructifying future. The silver lining of this was that I was left with nothing but the liquid now. I savored the moments with my loved ones—the feelings, the colors, tastes, aromas, the warmth—became eternalized.
This is an enriching product of my illness experience. Surely, there are much better options than living with a serious illness for living in the present. But within a reflexive response, creation of a good life can adjust to the particular challenge that come with being severely ill. Nietzsche declares that illness helps to reveal life’s “horizon[,] energies [and] impulses’ and thereby ‘makes us deeper.”
By highlighting features of the lived experience of illness which otherwise go unexplored, phenomenological medicine can “open a space for the creative adaptability that can enable a good life even within a context of illness.” This is the same kind of adaptability I found with the chemo box pockets sewn in my shirts. It is a response to environment that catches up to this strange new body and all the new challenges along with it. It was a small thing, to walk to the kitchen with more hands free. But the details are fabric of our life story. Getting tiny wins on a collective of ‘small things’ enriches “a modified but nonetheless rich texture of life even without a medical resolution.”
The condition of being able to respond to a change in environment is one of creativity and adjustability. Thus, illness bears potential as a ‘source of creative responses to it.” The ill person must also be able to cope with those changes, including the range of existential and intersubjective changes, and so continue to progress in personal development and make meaning amidst a difficult circumstance.
This adaptation can be such a struggle, especially late in life once habits have been rooted more deeply. It takes work and does not happen overnight. But the development of new adaptive abilities along with the refinement of old ones is a “creative achievement.” This “success … leads to a sense of achievement … satisfaction [and] improvement in quality of life.” As Arthur Kleinman puts it, ill people may be “privileged to discover powers within … us” allowing optimized ability to “contribute to [our own] care.”