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The existential situation of the patient: Well-being and absence

Burwood, Stephen



Kathleen Galvin


“Probably there is no better guarantee of a really unhealthy life than perfect health.” This paradoxical, and somewhat melancholic, assessment of our prospects for clinical well-being is given by J. H. van den Berg in The Psychology of the Sickbed. This assessment embodies a profound truth about the experience of illness and health that reveals illness to consist in a number of existential ‘conflicts’—with oneself, one’s body, one’s environment and with others—which could be said to constitute the existential situation of the patient. One’s experience of good health, on the other hand, consists largely, though not entirely, in the absence of these conflicts. In good health, one might say, one is at home with oneself, one’s body, one’s environment and with others. The experience of good health, because it is largely constituted by the familiar and routine, therefore breeds forgetfulness. The consolation van den Berg suggests illness may bring is that it is the “giver of little things.” After all, it is the little things that often form the wellspring of our sense of well-being. Thus, amidst the travail and anguish—or at least within the course of recovery and rehabilitation—we can find a positive reminder of important things familiarity and routine made us forget.


Burwood, S. (2018). The existential situation of the patient: Well-being and absence. In K. Galvin (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Well-Being (133-140). London: Routledge.

Acceptance Date Nov 1, 2017
Online Publication Date May 15, 2018
Publication Date May 11, 2018
Deposit Date Nov 26, 2018
Publisher Routledge
Pages 133-140
Book Title Routledge Handbook of Well-Being
Chapter Number 13
ISBN 9781317532538; 9781138850101
Keywords Biographical disruption; J. H. van den Berg; Illness and conflict; 'life audit'; Phenomenology of illness; Sickbed
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