What Is The Meaning Of Malady?

by Zoë Pollock

Mark Dery offers a stunningly beautiful, and funny, meditation on his years battling stomach cancer: 

Every patient has his answer. Mine is the existentialist’s koan: the answer is that there is no answer. My first impulse, as a godless rationalist, is to say that diseases like urethral cancer and system breakdowns like bowel obstructions are object lessons in the capriciousness of the cosmos—the unpredictability of life, its random unfairnesses. Our insistence that things have meanings and morals impels us to turn our sickness into metaphor and narrative; to demand something deeper from it than purposeless pain.

To my Christian-fundamentalist relatives, my near-fatal cancer was just the Lord moving in mysterious ways, showing me the error of my atheism before death consigned me to eternal torment. To my father, the colorectal cancer that killed him was, he confided in all seriousness, the likely result of a lifetime of emotional repression—karmic retribution for anal retention. … 

I contend that, while metaphor may be an illness when it obscures our understanding of the true nature of disease, language—the meta-metaphor—is the Indian rope trick that lets us climb into our minds, out of bodies in pain.

On a related note, Radiolab's most recent episode investigates our tenuous relationship with our guts.