I was watching a medical show where patients or patients’ relatives reveal how difficult it was to find a diagnosis for the conditions they were…

I was watching a medical show where patients or patients’ relatives reveal how difficult it was to find a diagnosis for the conditions they were experiencing, yet most felt relieved when they finally received a diagnosis that made sense.   There’s something comforting about having a name for things that seem to keep going wrong, whether it’s happening in your own body or with the world. It’s what we all do from time to time; we seek out something that will simplify in our minds a complicated situation. By giving a name to something, there’s some hope that it can be dealt with (though certainly, that’s not always or really the case).   But there can be a danger in trying to simplify something by giving it names and describing it and whatnot. Sometimes a laundry list description of a disease or just anything, really, that is life-altering minimizes its effects on an individual.   I mean, say that you have a debilitating disease but the people around you just say, “Ah yeah, it’s that disease with such and such symptom, right?” Then they don’t seem to think about how it affects you, and that’s what most painful, when people completely disregard that aspect completely.   I guess what I’m trying to say is that one the one hand, when you try to express something it enables you to understand whatever that condition is, yet on the other hand people might use the same words to minimize its effects on you.   – Allyson

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  • Christopher

    I think you’ve made a very insightful statement, A. It almost sounds like it comes from personal experience.

    I agree that people get both appropriate comfort from labeling a disease, or a problem of some other kind (ADD, alcoholism, depression) — and inappropriate comfort. It’s important to recognize both, and the critical importance of judgment to distinguish between them, to embrace one and avoid the other.

    To a person with terminal cancer, knowing the disease, naming it, typing it, knowing the drugs you’re taking and how they might help, can all be wonderfully sustaining things. You feel like you’re DOING something, not just waiting for the scythe to cut you down. You feel by naming the horror, you’ve confined it somehow: it’s just cancer, not some ultimate horror that turn you into a flesh-eating zombie or blot out the Sun, or a world-ending plague that will kill all your children.

    But, on the other hand, as you say, naming things also lets you avoid confronting them. Oh, you’ve got cancer. That’s this and that and the other thing. Now you’re pidgeon-holed, labeled, and I can stop thinking about you as a person. (Doctors are frequently accused of this.)

    We also do it ourselves. Oh, the reason I screw up in school is because I read on a Web site that I have the symptoms of ADD. There’s nothing I can do about it — why try? The reason I can’t hold down a job (at age 30) is because my parents divorced when I was 2, and the children of divorced parents have trouble holding down jobs. Well known fact. Nothing I can do about it.

    That is, we pidgeon-hole ourselves, sometimes, so that we don’t have to confront difficult truths, or take hard steps.

    Knowing the difference, now — knowing the difference between a form of denial that is constructive, that lets you put aside overwhelminig feelings in order to be able to function, and a form of denial that is destructive, that lets you put aside feelings that are warning you of dysfunction — that is the trick. Indeed, knowing that difference is evidence of grace and wisdom. Not everyone achieves it at all, let alone masters it, even late in life.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could be taught, reliably, in a classroom? If you could buy it? Find it laid out clearly in a post on a Web site, in a self-help book, or a religious or political manifesto?

    But maybe not. Maybe one of the first steps along the path is to realize that there CAN’T be any obvious, hard and fast rules by which you can decide what kind of denial you’re dealing with. Because otherwise, no one would make the mistake. Wisdom isn’t — can’t — be wisdom if it’s obvious to all, or if it’s easy to acquire, or even if it’s instantly recognized as wisdom.

    Or so it seems to me, halfway (or more) through my life.