Illness and Innocence

“You have the flu? How did you get it?” The simple medical answer is, “I was attacked by a flu virus.” Ah yes, but what did you do that gave the virus the opportunity to attack you? There is always a way to wring at least a little blame and guilt out of an illness. Perhaps you haven’t been eating well, taking the right vitamin supplements, keeping your stress level down, or simply avoiding others who have the flu.

painting by Pieter Bruegel

Illustrating the biblical quote, “If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting The Blind Leading the Blind invokes a link between blindness and sin, portraying men with cataracts and corneal leukemia who do not notice the church behind them. Credit: Creative Commons/Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

It’s easy to extend the list of possible missteps in a spiritual direction: You’re sick? You must have done something to separate yourself from God, spirit, good karma, or the life-sustaining force of the universe and now you’re paying the price. The link between misconduct and medical consequence is built into the very language we speak; words such as “blind” and “sick” not only describe a physical condition but also point metaphorically to wrong behavior. The word “ill” derives from the Middle English “ille,” meaning evil or wicked.

The association between illness and punishment exists in multiple languages and is deeply embedded in many of the world’s cultural and religious traditions. Judaism and Christianity, for example, commend kindness to those who suffer, but such sympathy is often compounded with disapproval. The Torah, for example, links piety to health and links impiety to suffering and death, claiming, “If you do not obey the Lord, your God … the Lord will strike you with consumption, fever, illnesses with burning fevers” (Deuteronomy 28:22). Jesus, following the healing he performed at Bethesda, remarks, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you” (John 5:14).

The Qur’an similarly asserts that human beings are responsible for their own misfortune: “Whatever of good befalls you, it is from Allah; and whatever of ill befalls you, it is from yourself” (Qur’an, Surah anNisaverse 79). Some forms of Buddhism attribute sickness and suffering to unrighteous behavior in a past life or in this one. According to Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche, for example, “Whatever is happening to us now mirrors our past karma.”
{{{subscriber}}} [trackrt]

How to Read the Rest of This Article

The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun‘s publisher. Click here for a full graphics version of “Illness and Innocence” that includes additional color images. Click here to read an HTML version of the article. Click here to read a PDF version of the article.

(To return to the Fall 2014 Table of Contents, click here).


Comments are closed.