A recent column on the mind-body connection and the effect of emotions on the outcome of illnesses brought a number of responses.
One reader complained that I was too negative in discussing the limits of positive thinking in combating illnesses. (I warned that putting too much stock in the power of positive thinking could set us up for an emotional trap: If the illness doesn't go away, it must be our fault for not mustering up the right frame of mind.) Another reader wrote:
"I felt that your article about the mind's importance in healing the body was excellent. I also thought that it omitted the third part of the mind, body, spirit triangle -- namely spirit -- what we mortals need to be whole human beings. If we are ill and believe that we need to take responsibility for the mental state which resulted in the unwell physical condition, then to me it follows that if we change our attitude we must then turn the outcome over to a higher power (or whatever you may choose to call that spiritual presence in your life). Blaming the victim is counterproductive . . . You are correct that 'that's a guilt trip nobody needs.' We are human and cannot control outcomes. We can, however, let go of our illusion of control and let the spiritual side direct our recovery process whatever the result may be."
A third point of view comes from a therapist whose brother is living with AIDS:
"There are serious problems with 'New Age' tenets that have been neglected by the media. This philosophy espoused by authors like Bernie Siegel and Louise Hay is inadequate when it comes to explaining why some people don't get well despite their best efforts. Moreover, people's legitimate 'negative' feelings aren't acknowledged. The biggest danger is blaming the person who is ill for their illness.
"Our culture finds it convenient to teach us that we control our own destiny. If we fail, it's because of our personal inadequacies . . . This mentality allows people to rationalize their apathetic behavior toward, to name a few: the homeless, mentally ill and those living with AIDS.
"It is the latter I feel most compelled to write about since my brother is living with this devastating illness. I have learned, despite my best efforts, I don't have control over my brother's health or society's lack of response to us . . .
"Our society desperately wants explanations for the inexplicable, one's illusion of control can remain intact. AIDS forces people to deal with this unknown and issues that are uncomfortable to examine, such as sex, homosexuality, drug abuse and dying. Dying, of course, is the ultimate loss of control. Society has largely responded to the epidemic by blaming the 'victim' or, insidiously, telling people with AIDS their illness is a spiritual 'gift.'
"Numerous books on AIDS subscribe to the 'AIDS as gift' approach to be overcome by a self-healing approach. Siegel and Hay tell people they are 100 percent responsible for their well-being and that their recovery is mostly in their hands."
This writer goes on to point out that a self-healing approach depends, among other things, on access to resources and opportunities that are not available to everyone. That's especially true in a country where 37 million people don't have basic medical insurance.
For many people fighting serious illness, the ability to call on the mind-body connection is a powerful weapon. But as these letters indicate, that connection is not always as simple as it may sound.
Perhaps the best lesson to draw is that we should not ignore or underestimate the mind-body connection, but neither should we overestimate its power.
Universal Press Syndicate