Archetype of Illness III-The Invalid

The invalid is another common figure. With no expectation of cure, he lives with few needs and believes that he makes minimal claims on others. The invalid is content to see the skull beneath the skin. The intimations of his own mortality give him, he believes, greater insight into the valley and shadow of limits and death in which we all walk. In a world of transient pleasures and questionable goods, the invalid chooses to bear his suffering with the “patience of Job.”

His sense of irony can be quite magnificent, and the detachment he has achieved by wanting very little enables him to be kind to others who are struggling for health or success. His illness complaints are not expressed through verbal insults against body, physicians, or fate, but by an unwillingness to move beyond his self-imposed boundaries of possibility and motion. Labeling him as “depressed” not only is wrong but discredits his world and what it offers us. The melancholic soul of Ecclesiastes, for example, judges the worth of the things of the world better than most others do.

Walter suffers with chronic pain. He is unable to participate in most of the activities he enjoyed before his condition worsened. Even when he experiences some relief, he is wary of working and playing as he did before, lest his anguish return. Although he maintains the same capacity to reflect upon his situation and make what most would agree are rational decisions, he thinks of himself as a man deprived of liberty, a prisoner of his own body, enslaved by his physical suffering.

Walter’s family is saddened that Walter lives in such constant distress. He encourages them to enjoy their own lives, to go places and do things without him. They are very reluctant to do so. He has always provided for them, and they feel that to go on with their lives as before would be to abandon him. One could suggest that Walter and his family are less differentiated than many others, but that would tell us very little about what they undergo.

His family is unable and unwilling to follow Walter’s directive, “Enjoy yourself, don’t worry about me” They feel, on the one hand, less autonomous and less capable of taking action than they did before his pain became chronic and severe. On the other hand, they accept the obligation and expect to do the right thing by Walter, as others will do by them. The members of Walter’s family believe they have gained something of great value—a pride in doing what is right—that is worth more than the goods or pleasures they have forfeited.

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