“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” –Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor
Illness is a distressing aspect of life that every person interprets individually and as a community. Such interpretations of illness are often shared through metaphors that emphasize the different effects of illness, such as the physical or emotional suffering involved. In her book, Illness as a Metaphor, Susan Sontag likens illness to belonging to “the kingdom of the sick.” This metaphor emphasizes the lack of control experienced by the ill by referring to a style of government in which citizens have little say, a monarchy.
This theme of little control presented in Sontag’s metaphor pervades the lives of the ill. No matter what the doctor prescribes, the sick individual does not control his or her illness. Many times an ill person simply has to allow the disease, minor or major, to run its course. Even when a person is healed of his or her malady, it is only a matter of time until the person faces another illness. This idea leads to a related emphasis of Sontag’s metaphor, the ever-present, universal nature of illness. Part of Sontag’s metaphor says: “Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” This statement implies that although people often separate “the sick” from “the healthy” and opt to identify with “the healthy,” both health and illness are parts of life, and on many occasions, people will be forced to identify with the unattractive aspects of life. In fact, this message may be beneficial to those who treat the ill with disgust, reminding people that the ill and the healthy share the same world and deserve the same respect.
Although Sontag’s metaphor provides thought-provoking commentary on illness, I would offer a different metaphor for this aspect of life. In my opinion, illness is the slippery puddle in the middle of a hallway. A puddle is indiscriminate in its unkindness and will bring anyone, no matter his or her stature, virtue, or age to the floor. Perhaps, this fall will lead to a few snickers from passersby, or maybe, some kind soul will offer to help the fallen to his or her feet. Either way, slipping is humbling. It reminds people every so often that they are not as invincible as they would like to think. In my metaphor, the puddle represents illness. For example, an old woman or a child may slip. When these members of society fall, the fall acquires a tone of dread. The elderly woman may have broken her hip, or the child may begin to cry out of shock and discomfort. Like puddles, illness attacks individuals indiscriminately. This aspect of my metaphor also emphasizes the fact that illness takes a different tone depending on whom it is affecting. When an elderly person becomes ill, those around him or her feel greater concern because the elderly are not as biologically equipped to fight illness. When a small child becomes very ill, the illness seems even more malevolent for threatening the life of one so small, pure, and innocent. Nevertheless, puddles also cause people other than the elderly and children to fall, people who likely will rise to their feet and continue with life. In an event such as this, the gravity of the situation is lessened. The slip is humbling, rather than devastating. Similarly, when a person of this sort becomes ill, the chances of survival are greater. The illness may lead to struggles, but it is also humbling in its reminder of shared, inherent vulnerabilities. A rough experience with illness may lead to personal growth, if the healed allow it to do so. Additionally, like puddles, illness is indiscriminate in the people it discomforts in terms of their individual, societal statuses. A puddle is as likely to slip the president as it is to slip a plumber. In this aspect, illness proves once again to be a humbling experience, an experience that places people, no matter their prestige, on equal ground.
Comparing illness to a puddle may seem an understatement. Perhaps, a person suffering from a particularly malicious malady would argue that falling ill is more like falling off a boat, unsure if one’s body will remember how to swim. This metaphor holds much truth as well and brings to light yet another aspect of illness, the fear experienced by the ill, perhaps even the desperation for survival. The implications of my first metaphor are similar to the implications of Sontag’s metaphor in the emphasis on the universal nature of illness. Sontag argues that every person is part of the kingdom of the ill, and I argue that everyone is susceptible to the indiscriminate foe, the puddle. Both metaphors illustrate that all people suffer from illness at some time or another in their lives. However, while Sontag’s metaphor emphasizes the lack of control people have over illness, I emphasize how that lack of control places humanity on equal ground, noting illness’s humbling effects, even though most people would prefer to have better health than not. Nonetheless, both metaphors have great worth, for they bring to mind aspects of illness often unnoticed in day-to-day life.
At a time when much conflict exists over the concept of universal health care, my metaphors and Sontag’s may have some effect on opinions of the issue. Sontag and I agree that illness is a universal issue. Although some people increase their likelihood of becoming ill by not caring for their bodies, illness affects everyone indirectly or directly at some point in life. Would it not be reasonable to suggest that people deserve equal chances of survival? Perhaps, universal health care could be beneficial by reminding people that illness is everyone’s problem, encouraging people to call louder for cures to the diseases present in this world. The lack of control emphasized by Sontag’s metaphor serves to remind people of what it must feel like to find oneself ill and unable financially to seek treatment. My metaphor emphasizes the fear experienced by the ill and the ability of illness to affect everyone, including those financially powerless against it. Surely, such metaphors could help spread a sense of solidarity. Although such metaphors by no means serve as ultimate comprehensive understandings of illness, they may draw people to understand how beneficial universal health care could be.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978. Print.