Cold Comforters

May 14, 2007 at 7:53 pm (Uncategorized)

Anyone out there with cancer? Well, I have news for you. Rather, Louise Hay, the author of Heal Your Body From A to Z: The Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Way to Overcome Them, has news for you. I’m sure your doctors have explained that cancer occurs when an abnormal cell rapidly divides until it, and its fellow rogue cells, create tumors. Well, it’s time to cast off that tyranny of rationality. Cancer and other diseases, according to Ms. Hay, are caused by various types of wrong-thinking. In the case of cancer, “deep hurt, long-standing resentment, a deep secret or hurt eating away at the self, or carrying hatreds,” is the real culprit.

How about multiple sclerosis? I know several people afflicted with MS, including my Uncle Bill, who died a painful and lonely death in the seventies before the new treatments emerged that make the disease more manageable today. Current researchers have hypothesized that genetics, environmental triggers, or even a virus, cause MS. Nope. According to Ms. Hay, the “probable cause” of multiple sclerosis is “mental hardness, hard-heartedness, an iron will, inflexibility, or fear.” And while it’s been rumored that drugs such as Avonex, Betaseron, and Rebif can delay the disease’s progression, don’t bother taking them. Instead, counter your heard-heartedness with “a new thought pattern”: “By choosing loving joyous thoughts, I create a loving, joyous world. I am safe and free.”

It’s too bad Ms. Hay doesn’t have sarcoidosis listed in her book of diseases, the bad thoughts that cause them, and the good thoughts that will cure them. I mean, she included leprosy, heart disease, brain tumors, and liver disease, in her handy, little alphabetized guide. If only she could pinpoint my metaphysically naughty thoughts, I could save my insurance company a bundle on the new medication I’m taking. Years of research went into Remicade, and, after only one infusion, I feel better, but, what the hell, I’d be curious to know how I’ve made myself sick. She does have a section on arthritis. Since my sarcoidosis has lately been causing a rheumatoid arthritis-like inflammation, I figured the arthritis rules might apply. The “probable cause” of arthritis is “feeling unloved, criticism, and resentment.” My new thought pattern is: “I am love. I now choose to love and approve of myself.”

You’ll have to excuse me for a few minutes while I go kick a wall or scream into my pillow or express my rage in some form other than by hiring a hit man to appropriately execute Ms. Hay. Because Lord only knows what commissioning murder for hire will do to my thought patterns and what diseases that will cause. So I’ll settle for hoping that Ms. Hay contracts colo-rectal cancer, a brain tumor (which, according to her, is caused by “incorrect computerized beliefs. Stubbornness, and refusing to change old patterns.”), and a whopping case of leprosy, and that her doctors deny her all treatments except formulating new thought patterns.

I discovered the book from which I’ve been quoting when I was browsing the shelves at the bookstore. It wasn’t the first time I encountered Louise Hay; fifteen years ago, when I was in the midst of a profound depression caused by trauma, a friend gave me a Hay tape to listen to. She had a soothing, gravelly voice that commanded me that the Universe was my friend and that the Universe only wanted good things for me. It was pretty bland stuff, and, while it certainly didn’t exacerbate my depression, then-recent life events had convinced me that the Universe lets pretty awful stuff happen. The tape didn’t make me toss out my anti-depressants and shriek, “I’m cured,” but neither did it make me want to hire a hit man.

Heal Your Body From A to Z is a silly book, and I shouldn’t let it enrage me so profoundly. But plenty of people take silly things seriously, and I shudder to think of someone with a brain tumor lambasting herself for thinking the wrong thoughts and then repeating mantras (“It is easy for me to reprogram the computer of my mind.”) that reinforce the message that somehow she made herself sick. Being seriously ill takes up enough energy without spending extra time worrying about how you brought this on yourself. And it seems to me that this is exactly what Ms. Hay is encouraging us to do.

I get touchy when people begin lecturing me on the mind-body connection. This is not because I don’t believe that our thoughts can affect our body. I know perfectly well that constant stress can contribute to heart disease, and that current studies indicate the self-labeled optimists live longer than those who think of themselves as pessimists. Mothers lift up cars with super-human strength delivered by the mind; yogis slow their breathing to a virtual halt. I don’t doubt that our brains and our bodies are like a pair on a tandem bicycle. They are separate entities that are intimately connected. Sometimes one of these metaphorical cyclists pedals harder; sometimes the other is responsible for getting up the hill. For me, the trouble begins when folks don’t know when to stop. There is a difference between acknowledging that our mental state can affect our body’s function and insisting that our thoughts cause our body’s problems.

The new-agey, soothing tones that cloak this message feel to me like they’re delivering the same old message that people in trouble have had to hear for thousands of years. Louise Hay sounds like a kinder, gentler version of Job’s comforters – the three “friends” who show up after Job has lost his family, his farm, and his health (all because God makes a bet with Satan, who appears as an angel in this story; I repeat, a bet, a friendly little wager among colleagues) to let him know that it’s all his fault. Elihu, the last of these three irritating fellows to lecture Job, tells his afflicted friend that Job must have done something wrong, because God is righteous, that God is beyond our capacity to comprehend, and that God does not do evil. Sounds a lot like the Universe only wanting to give us good things, if only we’d stop blocking the love.

Luckily, not too many people have told me outright that I’ve made myself sick with a chronic and potentially fatal illness. I have had “friends” ask me about the “energy” I’m bringing to the process of being sick, to which I’ve replied, “Have you ever had every bit of your body hurt? Have you ever laid awake at night worrying that the cardiac manifestation of your disease will prevent your from seeing your son start kindergarten?” When they say, “Er, no,” I then remind them that I bring all kinds of energy to the process. I’m alive, walking around, and living with a gram or two of compassion, which is more than they can say.” (Truthfully, I have never really uttered these words to the “energy” folks. But now that I’ve thought them and written them, I’ll have them ready next time. Usually I’m just so shocked that someone could be such an asshole and actually articulate such asshole thoughts that my mouth drops open and I’m left speechless.)

Lots of other people, wonderful friends and family, pray for me in their own traditions. One woman sends me healing reiki energy. My brother Ken has continued his Lenten observances in my name. My parents have contemplative nuns pray for me. Eric sends “good vibes” my way. I like all these prayers and hopeful thoughts offered in my name. It makes me feel loved. It makes me feel not alone in this terrible process of disease. But when I start thinking about the God-illness connection too much, I can get just as squirrely as I do with then Louise Hays-ers. When I was in high school a young friend of my parents died a rapid and very unpleasant death from cancer and left behind two small boys. She had plenty of comforters of the Job model stopping by her hospital bed and telling her that she wasn’t praying hard enough or right enough; otherwise, God would have sent her a miracle and cured her. Apparently, God wasn’t in a miracle mood when Laura died – or when millions of other good and decent people die each year before their time. I don’t want to ask God for a miracle because if I don’t get one, does this mean I am undeserving or that God is fickle in delivering them?

And this brings us back to the mind-body people and their belief in the sufferer’s role in her own suffering. If God or the Universe or However You Want To Think About It truly is good and truly is capable of enacting amazing miracles and you end up dying painfully anyway, it must be your fault in some way. If this is your model, you end up either blaming the sick person (like Job’s comforters) or questioning the whole darn system (like atheists, agnostics, and religious dissidents everywhere).

The blame that some of the ultra-religious and the ultra-New Agey deliver to the doorstep of the sick and the broken really comes from a place of fear. Because – and of this I can assure you – no matter how many good thoughts you think, no matter how many prayers you toss into the sky, no matter how scrupulously you live your life – you will die. Given the advanced medical technologies of today, you’ll probably die of something chronic, or something that eats away at you a little more each day, like cancer. It’s awful and it’s wrong. We shouldn’t die, and the people we love shouldn’t die. And we shouldn’t get sick. But here’s the thing: it happens, no matter how many new thought patterns you evolve, no matter how stiffly you try to hold it at bay by wondering in the back of your mind what “so and so” did to deserve getting this. Was it a bad diet? Did they spray chemicals in the house? Did they carry shame in their heart? Did they pray to the wrong God? Or to the right God but not hard enough?

After Job’s comforters scuttle back to the rocks whence they came, God actually speaks to the tormented Job. What God says isn’t exactly comforting. Basically, He tells Job that Job, like all humans, is a piss-ant (my words, not the Bible.) In some of the most beautiful verse ever set down, God asks Job, “Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?” and then goes on to question Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations…Who closed the sea behind doors when it gushed forth out of the womb, when I clothed it in clouds…Have you ever commanded the day to break, assigned the dawn its place…Have you ever penetrated to the sources of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been disclosed to you? Have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you surveyed the expanses of the earth? If you know of these – tell Me.” In other words, God is transcendent and His nature is unknowable. In his speech to Job from the whirlwind, He doesn’t explain fairness or injustice. He doesn’t tell Job why he chose his most loyal servant to test his theories against Satan. God simply asserts that He is above comprehension, beyond the puny, flailing reach of Man’s mind.

For me, the message of Job (and of life) is that in the face of such an awesome, remote, and powerful force, we can’t expect answers or solutions that make sense. We are like algae living on a pebble in a pond, trying to grasp in the infinitude of the sea. We can only know in our hearts that we cannot understand the ways of God. In an odd way, when I’m able to remember this, I’m strangely comforted because I understand there’s no reason I’m sick, and there’s no reason someone else isn’t sick. And no matter how much I flail my algal self around, that’s not going to change.

Call me hopeless, but reminding myself of my puniness makes me a better person. I don’t play the blame game like Louise Hay. I don’t point my finger at those suffering. I might commission a murder or two of self-help authors, but, besides that, I’m fairly open to the notion that we – we humans – are all alone together, trying our best.


  1. barb said,

    Thanks for clearly describing the cause of the inner prickly heat I experience with all those new age concepts. They are all, in my humble opinion, a misinformed use of control. They are full of sad “if only’s” expressed as gospel. They fail to notice that many incredible spiritual leaders have died of colon cancer, brain tumors, ms etc. Keep on ranting.. you SOUND like you are feeling better. I do know, from my work, that the mind-body connctions, used with MERCY and awareness, can be a great tool toward making more energy available for the body to use for healing and many times, the definition of healing varies. Do we think a tree that gets sick or a dog or cat has the same woo woo control? Actually, in this metaphysical day and age, I join you in the blasphemy, yee haaa. Barb

  2. Mellissa said,

    Hello Rebecca, I am glad to see that you are finally starting to feel like yourself again. I just wanted to pass on some good reading material which may help ease your mind and your heart. Not sure how open minded you are but books by Sylvia Browne are amazing. The book called “If You Could See What I See” really explains why good and bad things happen in life. Just a thought, but I feel more at peace after reading her stuff.

  3. Nancy said,

    Tell um girl tell um – I actually had someone very dear say to me when the leg pain was particularly bad, the ol’ exercise more – use it or you will lose it phrase. I watched a program on PBS, Bill Moyers and discussions of faith and saw a man who spoke so clearly about his involvement with helping many with terminal illness – being with them and having the joy of their passing be so true for him. Then he became ill – felt the betrayal of his body and said it was not a reality to him till he had stepped into the role of a chronically ill person. It wasn’t words, care, sympathy, but a reality – I think people understand the best they can – how far they can address the fear – and when you are ill, it is not an option any more. Nan

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