A Most Undesirable Teacher: Learning from Illness and Trauma

“When we see what we have to learn from an illness, then often the illness can gather itself and begin to depart.”  John O’Donohue
“Cancer is an amazing teacher.”  Dr. Tieraona Low Dog
“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”  Friedrich Nietzsche     

We’ve all had at least one. You know, one of those teachers: the tough one with seemingly  Strict Teacher. Old-time School Stock Photo - Image of ...unreasonable expectations, the one we resented while in his or her class but later came to appreciate. Once older, wiser, and having reaped the benefits of his/her lessons (educational or otherwise), we reflect, maybe not fondly, but appreciatively on our time with this teacher. That most undesirable teacher, we now realize, was a source of our growth and of certain abilities, strengths and values. This is also true of illness and trauma, through which we enter a classroom of a very different sort.

Although undesirable, illness and other traumatic events are quite effective and uncompromising teachers. Such experiences give us insight into ourselves and those close to us, and they provide us with a changed perspective that often results in new values, priorities, and ways of seeing and experiencing the world around us. In short, experiences of illness and trauma can be experiences of self-discovery, growth, and renewal. For instance, having the opportunity to sit outside and enjoy a breezy spring afternoon with just the clouds, birds, and trees for company might now be enough to quench a parched hour and feed our spirit.

Such small, simple things might now be plenty to fill our days with abundance.

Maybe now, fully immersed in our illness or trauma, we can be “satisfied by simple things like breathing in and breathing out” (Natalie Merchant, “Not in This Life”).  woman in white crew-neck T-shirt holding her head

So sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and

breathe in. . .breathe out. . .breathe in. . .breathe out. . .

Do this for several minutes, long enough to feel your mind clear. Then open your eyes, and write down the first thing that comes into your mind. Is it a significant thought or something (seemingly) trivial? Is it something you’ve been worried about? Explore this thought and see if you can discover why it was the first thought upon opening your eyes.

Other ideas for reflection and writing:
1. What has your illness or trauma taught you about yourself? Reflect on the values and priorities you’ve gained and that have changed, as well as newly discovered and/or intensified fears and strengths.

2. Focus on your new and/or intensified strengths. From what aspect(s) of your illness or trauma experience did they originate? How are they helping you in your daily life and in difficult times?

3. Start with the first part of the lyric quoted above and complete it: Now I’m “satisfied by simple things like. . .” List as many as you wish to, and then choose at least one to explore in depth. When you’re done, consider recreating your journal entry into a poem or song.

4. Using O’Donohue’s idea that awareness of what our illness (or trauma) can teach us allows it to “gather itself and depart,” describe your illness doing just that. Give your departing illness the human qualities of a house guest readying itself to (finally!) leave. What would its attitude and actions be? What might it say? How would you respond? Enjoy getting creative with this one!


I’d love to hear what you’ve learned from your experience!
Please share your thoughts in the comments section.



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