Thirty years ago, a young German physician named Rüdiger Dahlke published a remarkable book. “This is an uncomfortable book” were the first words of the preface. Indeed it is. The book, The Healing Power of Illness, which Dahlke wrote together with the late psychotherapist Thorwald Dethlefsen, argued that sick people aren’t just innocent victims of disease but are responsible for the illnesses they take on.
We are familiar with the idea that we can create illness, but most of us think we do it through unhealthy lifestyles, like smoking, not exercising or eating junk food. Dahlke and Dethlfsen had a different message: We create disease with our psyches and our behavior—and that is also where healing begins.
Disease is not something we should try to avoid, Dahlke says; in fact, the authors argued that healthy people don’t even exist—it is our opportunity to become more alive and more on our paths. We learn our life’s lessons and purpose through our illnesses and ailments.
“Disease,” says Dahlke, “is the symbol of a task. If we perform the task, we relieve the body. If you don’t get the message on the psychological level, the challenge manifests in the body and you have to live the illness.”
And most of us don’t get the message. In The Healing Power of Illness, the authors refer to research about the complaints of people who present themselves as healthy. It turns out that the “healthy” people had almost as many issues (back problems, head aches, eczema, sleeplessness) as patients in hospitals. “We’re ill, all of us. And this is parallel to what religions have told us forever. As long as we are apart from unity, we’re ill. We are not complete; we are not integrated,” says Dahlke.
But it isn’t always easy to heal ourselves. “People confuse responsibility and guilt,” Dahlke says. “When I argue that someone is responsible for his illness, I’m not saying that that disease is his fault. The disease provides, however, an ability to respond. We have to get to know what that disease means in our lives, what it wants to tell us. A disease presents a task and when we perform the task, we heal the body.”
The Healing Power of Illness is a powerful read. The book is out of print, but manuscripts are available for a short time, as are a small number of consultations with Dahlke.
Can We Heal Ourselves?