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"Cruel" Disease

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By Alyce Barry

It's my belief that we cannot avoid learning and growing even if we try, at least not indefinitely or completely. And I think that's because we're here to learn and grow.

I sometimes find myself trying to avoid learning something that life is trying to teach me, usually because the learning is painful.

I think one of the ways we learn and grow is through illness. But I've found it hard to say that in a way that doesn't bring up shame for some people. I said that once to somebody who thought I was telling her that her chronic illness was "her fault." That wasn't what I meant at all, I simply meant that the illness was sent to help her learn something, and maybe that was the only way God could help her learn it.

When I get a cold or the flu, I believe it means something that I've been avoiding, probably because I've felt too much shame about it to try to learn it consciously. A cold, for me, means that I've got too much on my plate, and I probably felt too much shame to remove some of them from my plate or get enough rest. A flu, for me, means I've been forcing myself to do something I don't want to do, probably because I felt too much shame to let myself find another way or let myself off the hook. In either case, I think God was trying to get something to me that I wasn't getting, and so I got sick.


I hear people referring to diseases as "cruel." A disease is called cruel because it causes physical pain, or it incarcerates an active mind in a paralyzed body, or it unravels the rational mind within an otherwise healthy body, or for other reasons.

I'm working right now as my elderly mother's caregiver, and I have frequent occasion to think about what it means to say that a disease is cruel. My mother is bipolar, and bipolar disorder is one of many diseases that is called cruel, perhaps because it wreaks such havoc on a person's life.

I looked up the word cruel in the dictionary, and there were two primary meanings. First, cruel means merciless, unforgiving, unrelenting. In this meaning, a disease is cruel because we may continue to suffer even if we start to learn what the disease was sent to teach us. Suffering does not necessarily bring about a cure.

The second meaning of cruel is that it causes pain, injury, or grief. In this meaning, the words "cruel disease" seem redundant.

I'm coming to the conclusion that what it really means to say "a cruel disease" is that the disease is teaching somebody something that they don't want to learn, like how to live with pain, or how to live in a paralyzed body, or how to go on living with an unraveling mind.


I think Shadow Work® is one way of making a choice to learn something consciously. The first thing we do in Shadow Work® is answer the question, "What would you like to have happen here?" In doing so, we ask to learn something that we haven't learned yet, and to learn it now.

In this belief that life must involve some suffering in order to grow, I find both good news and bad news. The bad news is obvious: I certainly don't enjoy suffering.

The good news is that if, as I believe, the ultimate purpose of suffering is to bring me into connection with the divine, then my suffering means that the divine will insist on whatever connection it can get with me. Like a good parent who insists on connecting with a child, the divine will insist on getting close to me by any means possible.

And there's a bit more good news, too: this belief furnishes me with some motivation to do my work. Because if, in doing my work, I can learn something consciously, by choice, then I may be able to avoid learning it unconsciously through a cruel disease.

I know there are no guarantees, but in this as in many things in life, I think it's wise to improve my odds.


Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She is the author of Practically Shameless, which has been on's Bestseller list of books about Jungian psychology for more than a year. The book is available in paperback and on audio CD. Read more about Alyce.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in November 2009. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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