Ill and yet Happy
How to stand strong in the face of disease

It happens to all of us: we get sick. Sometimes, our body decides it needs a time-out or it simply can’t take all that’s coming to it. And it feels terrible. But it is not the end of the world: we can use our mind to stand strong in the face of disease, and even become better because of it.

I am actually writing this after I have experienced a period of sickness myself. Although I am rarely sick – and I count myself lucky for that – the occasional strike of disease reminds me what it’s like. Whether it’s pain, dysfunction, dizziness, general physical symptoms or a complete lack of energy, illness always poses a challenge. So let’s see how we can face this challenge.

One of my favourite parts of Epictetus’ Discourses is this, in which he states what a true Stoic is like: “Show someone who is ill and yet happy, in danger and yet happy, dying and yet happy, exiled and yet happy. Show me such a person; by the Gods, how greatly I long to see a Stoic!” (Discourses, II.19)

What Epictetus is saying, is that illness, danger, death or exile do not determine our happiness. You can live a good life whether you are healthy or sick. Illness is an ‘indifferent’: something that we may pursue, but never at the cost of virtue. It is at best a secondary objective. Our health is important, but it is not the most important. Accepting this may give you some solace.

Moreover, we do not control illness. We can exercise regularly, eat healthily, get plenty of sleep, abstain from drugs, alcohol and smoking, and do all these other things that strengthen our body. But in the end, we can still get sick. And that’s just something we’ll have to deal with. A healthy lifestyle can definitely benefit you – and I warmheartedly recommend it – but it is no panacea.

So what should you do when getting sick? First, accept it. This is something that happens to all of us, and no human being is immune to disease. Second, make the best of the situation. You still have the power to make your day count and to live well. Here’s Epictetus again: “Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the power of choice, unless it chooses so itself” (Encheiridion, 9)

Illness may feel bad, but we rise above it. You may even consider it a test of strength and resiliency. A true Stoic can always be good, even in bad health. It may be hard, but not impossible. It may be a struggle, but it will make you stronger. You may feel like there’s nothing you can do, but there’s always something. Accept your illness, and move from there. As Seneca says: “It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it” (On Providence, II).

Direct Action: Think about what you can do the next time you are getting ill. Do you need some rest? This is the time. Do you want to know how other people deal with matters without you? Are you ready for a test of character? Illness can be a challenge, rather than a pain. Prepare for it.

By the way: always consult a medical professional if you need it. The mind is strong, but the body needs a little help sometimes.