The thought has weighed on me lately that illness often disrupts consciousness. While consciousness vanishes altogether when we are deeply asleep, we normally return upon wakening to a mental awareness which is both a constant interior receiving of the world (experience) and a near-constant inner conversation about this reception (reflection). If you were to ask, “What is it like to be a human?,” the answer would surely be in terms of this interior life.
In his famous work on flow theory, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi concludes that the key to happiness is a well-structured consciousness. He speaks of tennis players, artists, musicians, and others who are able to “lose themselves” in an activity as having achieved a well-structured consciousness and therefore, on his theory, optimal experience. On the other hand, he says that people who do not have the necessary habits for structuring consciousness become dependent on something outside of them to provide structure: television is his favorite example, as it provides an almost entirely passive way of structuring one’s interior awareness.
Illness does not take consciousness away altogether, but in my experience it fragments awareness. It prevents one from seeing everything at a given moment together, that is, from having an entirely coherent experience. This may not be at all visible to outside observers: the sick person’s exterior actions and words may fit quite nicely into the observer’s very coherent experience of the moment, and they cannot see inside the mind of the other how the many aspects of the moment are hanging together only vaguely, with many loose ends and unconnected threads. When a good friend of mine was ill, she described to me the relief she felt at watching movies and television; in my own experience with illness, I have also felt the urge to watch videos as a way of escaping the tedium of an unstructured consciousness. Illness seems to strike directly at what it means to be human, at what makes for happiness.
But this morning as I continued my reading through Garrigou-Lagrange’s Three Ages of the Interior Life, I was reminded to reflect on the role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Whereas even the theological virtues and the infused moral virtues are directed by faith, which is an act of the mind, the gifts of the Spirit are meant to prepare us for receiving immediate direction from God: if the virtues are like the oars on our ship, by which we propel ourselves forward to heaven, the gifts are like sails that enable us to receive the divine wind’s power own movement. So for example, faith may patiently work out the meaning of a biblical passage, but only a special inspiration of the Holy Spirit will help us answer a sudden an indiscreet question without either telling a lie or betraying a confidence. The Spirit steps in to pick us up, without our own reflection, and move us suddenly to the right place.
Perhaps illness is a special time for beginning to live more and more according to the gifts of the Spirit. When consciousness is fragmented, even faith and prudence have a hard time directing the ship to the opposite shore, because faith and prudence both require an act of reason. But the Spirit, working through his gifts, can direct us there even if our minds are full of fog.