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Rehabiliation, acceptance, transformation, coping with illness and disability

When struck by a chronic condition, pain and/or disability that severely compromise your ability to participate in the worldly aspects of life – working, traveling, moving, caring for, contributing, building, socializing – we can say that, in a manner of speaking, you have lost your force in this world, or your worldly power.

This can be a turning point in your biography, and is often associated with the path of mythical figures. To live in this world, yet to not have the force to take part in it, introduces an initiation of some kind, one could say.

The first phase in an initiation is always the ending of something, the death of what was, the loss of identity. Only later are we are guided into a different realm of life, a realm that does not directly belong to this material world.

Losing your force in this world is the first step in the awakening and development of another force that belongs to a different world. The world of the soul, perhaps. Let us contemplate two images that illustrate this process.


The first image is that of the Norse god Odin who, in search of the powerful forces and knowledge of the cosmos, rendered himself powerless by hanging upside down from the sacred tree Yggdrasil where “ . . . he forbade any of the other gods to grant him the slightest aid, not even a sip of water. And he stared downward, and stared downward. . .” Here, that all-powerful Nordic god of war and death, the sky god and god of wisdom knows that even he has to render himself powerless and surrender completely in order to receive the wisdom of the cosmos, in his case, the Runes.  It is a most wonderful and soul-nurturing story, well worth a read.

The Hanged Man

Another similar image can be found in the Hanged Man (Mayor Arcana).   Here, very briefly, the main lesson of the Hanged Man is that we control by letting go - we win by surrendering. The figure depicted has made the ultimate surrender - to die on the cross of his own travails - yet he shines with the glory of divine understanding. He has sacrificed himself, yet he emerges the victor. The Hanged Man also tells us that we can move forward by standing still. By suspending time, we can have all the time in the world.

The Hanged Man reminds us that the best approach to a problem is not always the most obvious. When we most want to force our will on something, that is when we should release. When we most want to have our own way, that is when we should step back. When we most want to act, that is when we should wait. The irony is that by making these contradictory moves, we find what we are looking for.

Letting go of Control

It is not necessary to have an affinity with mythology to have these images speak to us as representations of what lives as a dynamic in our own soul and in the lifestyle that is forced upon us due to the debilitating effects of a chronic illness or disability.  We find some very helpful metaphors and insights here, because their story is also our story.

After all, is it not so that the effects of your condition at times make you feel powerless and as if ‘hanging upside down’? Is it not so that the part in you that protests most vehemently is the part that desires control, the part that wants you to have it your way?

In this, surrender is not what we usually consider it to be; giving up or showing defeat. It goes without saying that you continue to look for supportive therapies, medication, and improvement.

Surrender here is more marked by how you position yourself towards your illness. Can you let go of the ‘battle’? Can you let go of the idea that your condition is your enemy? Is it possible for you, even for brief moments, to voluntarily step back, to put yourself out of the way and extinguish your inner conflict so that a space is created in which another impulse can enter?

Acceptance is a deep mystery. It is not found in you ‘loving what is’. It is not found in you ‘liking what is’. You don’t even have to ‘agree with what is’. But you do have to accept what is. Because only from that place can you move forward.

Not in anger, not in resistance and fight, but in taking your condition by the hand as you would a precious child and be with it as a loving guardian.

And when you manage to do that, you might yet be very surprised at the unlikely places from which support will come to you.