“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick” wrote the American writer Susan Sontag. My elderly mother is very ill at the moment, and so our family, along with so many others, find ourselves plunged into the kingdom of the sick, with its carers, ambulances and hospital visits.
Even if we pass by hospitals on a daily basis, or are addicted to TV soap operas, many of us have little idea of what they’re really like inside. And sometimes the easiest way to respond to things we don’t understand is to make a joke of them. Like many children, I used to giggle at old people being wobbly on their feet, without thinking what it would be like to experience that happening to myself. And I may not be the only person who, until the Paralympics came along, found it hard to accept deep down that people in wheelchairs are just the same as me.
I got involved with Buddhism because I wanted to have more love and compassion, and was then taught that the first step is to develop my capacity for empathy and equanimity - the ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes however different they may seem. The silver lining to life’s most painful experiences, such as illness, disability and bereavement, is that they help us to develop our capacity to understand from the inside out.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” said Plato. I’d like to offer a prayer for every person and family that is struggling with illness today. May we each develop our ability to listen and to understand what they are going through, so that we are better able to offer them our kindness and our love.