Those of us with chronic illness sometimes hear we’re warriors. You might agree or disagree. But Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has a lot to teach us.
Written in another time and place, it’s been the secret weapon of such powerful people as Steve Jobs and Donald Rumsfeld.
I decided to turn to this classic to see if it had anything to teach me about my own battles with chronic pain and illness. While it seemed mysterious when I first read it, I began to see how much practical advice it contained.
Ancient wisdom you can use
The Art of War is a slim volume of 13 chapters. But it teaches you how to deal with situations where you’re pushed to the limit, outnumbered, or in a seemingly hopeless position.
For my money, that’s about as good a description of life with chronic illness as you can get.
Here are some of the best pearls of wisdom in the book:
1. To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
Sun Tzu’s core message is that the best thing is to avoid fighting. This seems odd for a book about war. But he knew that war came with huge costs. How much better to find ways around having to fight, and instead break the enemy some other way.
When we’re ill, it can feel like every day is a battle. The best we may be able to manage is to get out of bed. Or, we might not be able to do that. And that’s okay.
The key is to find ways to live as fully as possible while avoiding going head to head with our illness. In this way, we win without having to fight.
2. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.
Chronic illness can drag on for years. We have to conserve our resources. Even if we know this, we often don’t notice how much we’re drained by our thoughts or actions.
It’s tempting to try to rally and do things we know are going to hit us hard later. The perfect Christmas for our children. The exercise we’re not ready to do. No matter how much pressure we’re under to do these things, we need to take the long term into account.
We might also be squandering our mental energy in ways we don’t notice. In our loneliness—especially if we’re homebound—we may waste time on conversations that bring us down, or too much time on social media.
While we may not be able to make our illness go away, we do have the power to listen to our bodies and emotions. We can set limits so when the next flare-up hits, we’re not as far down. And if we’re having an up day, we’ll temper it while enjoying everything about it.
3. He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
This advice seems obvious at first, but chronic illness is in many ways a series of difficult choices.
Considering another round of chemo? A procedure you’re not sure will help? Or, you could be in an actual fight—arguing with your doctor, spouse, or boss.
As Sun Tzu knew, fighting is hard on both body and soul. So consider each time whether it’s necessary. If not, sit it out.
4. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Knowledge is power. Take the time to research your illness. Join support groups online and in person. Figure out the best ways to listen to your body. Whatever it takes to learn how the enemy operates and what can be done about it.
This part is obvious to most. But he says we also have to know ourselves.
What does it mean to know yourself in the face of chronic illness? First, it means grieving the loss of the person you once were. In a sense, this process never ends. But embracing it gives you power.
Next, it means taking stock of your strengths and weaknesses. Some you had going into this situation. Others you gained as a result of the illness.
For example, I had to learn patience—something I didn’t need before. You might also now know that you’re moodier and more prone to anger, especially when you’re tired or in pain. All of this gives us ammunition.
And remember Sun Tzu’s warning: if you don’t know yourself or your enemy, you’re sure to lose. This should motivate you to do the work.
5. The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.
This is counterintuitive at first. If the enemy is the illness, how can it be the one that makes defeat possible?
But what if the enemy isn’t the illness itself?
Think about the worst things about being chronically ill. For me, it’s feeling guilty about being a burden on others, my husband in particular. So it’s not the illness but my own guilt that’s the real enemy. That’s something that I can turn around, thanks to my awareness of it.
And even if you decide the illness itself is the enemy, remember that people have used their illness to make contributions they wouldn’t have if they’d remained healthy.
Think of Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox or Jennifer Brea, who made the film “Unrest” and leads activist group ME Action. These people used their illness to make a difference—in essence defeating the enemy through the very opportunities it created.
6. One may KNOW how to conquer without being able to DO it.
This is the only part of the book that uses all caps. It’s the extra emphasis that’s the key to understanding what Sun Tzu is saying.
Much of the book is in the realm of ideas. It’s about knowledge.
But here, he’s making the opposite point. You can know everything you need to, but it’s not worth anything if you can’t act.
He’s saying you must have the wherewithal to take action when necessary. Whether that means deciding to look for a better doctor, reduce your working hours (or perhaps stop working), end a relationship that’s making you feel worse…whatever it is, you have to take that step or all your self-awareness is for nothing.
7. Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.
When you’re ill, it’s difficult not to get stuck in a pattern of doing things the same way. But what worked once might not work again.
For example, I got a lot out of chiropractic at first. But at some point, it stopped helping. It took me too long to let it go. Our bodies change, as do our life situations. We have to be able to respond to this “infinite variety of circumstances.”
Not easy when your life is as hard as it is. But we risk making ourselves worse off if we don’t stay on our toes and make changes to fit whatever is happening.
Life with illness is an art
There are many more gems in the book that I haven’t included here. And each time I read it, I learn more. The most important thing to take away is that we have the power to overcome some of the hardest things about being ill.
The key is to see that there’s an art to living with chronic illness. We don’t have to follow the typical script. Instead, we can be nimble in our dealings with it.
The book dispenses invaluable advice. But in exchange, it asks something of us. We have to let go of patterns and behaviors that aren’t helping us. We have to get to know ourselves. Grab opportunities. Make hard choices.
Since discovering this little volume, my approach to my illness has changed. I feel stronger and more capable. I’m less plagued by guilt and doubts. Most of all, I accept that in a war like this, there are ways you can win.