“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.
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 an–Nisa‘ verse 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.”
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