Names have a transformative effect on their subjects; they reveal identity, create connections, and tell stories. While they offer information, names also conjure images and emotions that go hand in hand with the relationships we build with them over time. A name for someone or something we love can evoke feelings of endearment, while a name we negatively associate with can elicit adverse responses in our minds and bodies. There is an ancient idea around healing that our words affect our realities and to be mindful of their power when using them to describe our states of being. I learned the value of referring to an illness as not only a machala (ailment), but as yenem (“that”) machala – disengaging from the malady and vitalizing a refuah (healing) mindset. There is practical relevance for this concept in daily life, for both the speakers and the listeners of these messages.
A friend recently shared how thrilled she was to attend a party where she ran into an old friend who knew that she experienced an illness years earlier. There she was at this beautiful affair, with festive music playing, tables of delicacies surrounding them and love in the air around the newly engaged couple they were celebrating. This friend asked her if she knew a certain person, to which she responded that the name sounded familiar, but not really, and asked about the questions’ significance. Without missing a beat, this friend answered, “because she also has…” and named the disease. This statement instantly deflated her joyful state for several reasons. One, it triggered a painful memory that she tried not to think about as prominently or as often. Two, because this friend seemed too comfortable to casually bring something up as sensitive as that. Third, there was no constructive purpose in mentioning it – not to ask for help or advice – only to outwardly make an association by identifying them with a disease which she no longer wished to identify with. Regrettably, this sort of scenario is common.
A particularly cringe-worthy moment was when I attended a shabbat meal and a fellow guest sharing her passion about her field as a geneticist proceeded to name a disease and express how she did not know how any carrier of such disease could ever contemplate having children. I knew, but she did not, that another guest around the table had a parent with that disease, was likely a carrier, and was in the process of dating; hoping to meet her bashert and create a family (which thank God she went on to do). Despite my making several attempts to redirect the conversation, it continued, and I remember looking at this other guest who sat in silence waiting for it to end, wondering how this could be happening.
There are times and places when naming illnesses is appropriate and necessary. Generally, that context is private and with the intention of generating a plan toward recovery. Naming a problem with specificity is often a key diagnostic step to providing helpful solutions and support. Other appropriate forums for naming illnesses are medical conferences or support groups wherein attendees join with expectations of what will be discussed and with educational purpose. Naming may also be considered beneficial to raise awareness, whether for fundraising efforts towards a cure or to let people know they are not alone.
It is not OK, however, to casually name illnesses in public or directly to anyone without knowing their or their family’s medical histories or if that information is welcome. This happens in unexpected ways that have significant impact. During inspirational lectures, speakers will reference illness by name to dramatize a narrative, emphasize a plight, or show their knowledge of surrounding details. At informal get-togethers, naming illnesses comes up as background information when telling a story – often to marvel at where a person is in life despite having gone through said illness. At simcha speeches, speakers may refer to a beloved deceased relative and cite the name of the illness that led to their death. Have they interviewed everyone in the room and ascertained their health status and cleared that in fact it will not be painfully triggering for them (or their children, sibling, parent, or spouse)? Is it truly necessary to name the illness to convey the sentiments? That has to give one pause.
In truth, there is often greater relatability and personalization that comes from referencing a machala than there is by referring to its name. Using the term machala creates a level of abstraction that is also universally relatable, as we all endure emotional and physical afflictions. Otherwise, well-intentioned remarks underscored by love, survival, or God forbid loss, could be painful triggers when including unnecessary detail and thoughtlessly shared with an audience whose challenges they know nothing about. Despite a possibly presumed justification by virtue of one’s profession, personal experience, or eagerness to share, there is risk of inflicting ona’at devarim (pain inflicted by words – Bava Metzia 58b) on listeners. So too, metaphors that utilize ‘disease’ terms to describe a crisis situation can have a similar effect. One ought to ask themselves before invoking associations with illness what their goal is and what details are actually necessary in achieving it. .
Just as there is reason to avoid the negative consequences of unwarranted naming, there is value in maintaining a yenem machala and refuah vernacular for its own sake. Research has shown that when patients become empowered to avoid triggering comments and adjust their vocabulary to reflect a healthy state of being, they actually feel better. As opposed to the reductive quality of disease identification, there is a fluidity and hopefulness that comes from verbal expression that aligns with a healing trajectory. Heightened awareness around language pertaining to health can thereby also be an important demonstration of compassion to ourselves and others.
Words have tremendous power; they create realities and shape experiences. There are questions one needs to ask themselves before referencing an illness by name, like how necessary it is to capture the essence of who or what they are describing and how it may potentially affect their audience. A person who has endured pain or suffering need not be hurt by casual references from others that they have no business talking about. In the spirit of sensitizing our language around health, may it be a zechut (merit) for a refuah sheleimah (complete healing) for all those who need it and bring us closer to our geulah (redemption) as individuals and as a nation.