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What 'The Wizard of Oz' Can Teach Us About Life With Chronic Illness

Sarah Hauer
Yellow brick road on grass with sun and blue sky

I remember watching the movie “The Wizard of Oz” as a kid. The black and white filming at the beginning used to be so boring. Then, after the tornado dropped Dorothy and Toto off in the land of Oz, the colorful parts dazzled my young mind. When they returned to Kansas, the black and white aspects of the film didn’t seem to be boring anymore. The boring fell away and the essence of the story came to life.

As I watched the movie with my children, I understood the director did that on purpose. With chronic disease and chronic pain as my daily companions, I love the effect. It has taken on a whole new meaning for me.

The movie starts out with Dorothy, a sweet little girl from rural Kansas, and her little dog, Toto, scurrying home after an encounter with a grumpy woman. Toto has apparently been a naughty puppy. Dorothy seeks out her aunt and uncle to help her deal with this situation. They are too busy with farm work to take the time to listen and brush her off. She then seeks out advice from the farm hands who obviously feel for her plight but do not have the experience to understand her fears. Eventually, the woman arrives, threats are made, the dog is taken, and Dorothy is left to fend for herself in dealing with her understandably negative emotions.

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Allow me to pause here a moment. Understandably negative emotions. They are understandable. Are they not? After all, she adores that little dog. He is her constant companion, her best friend, her shoulder to cry on. No one has helped her deal with the little dog being ripped from her arms. That angered me as a child and made me feel helpless in a world of busy adults. How could they allow Dorothy to go through such heartache alone?

We do that in the real world. We leave people to deal with heartache alone. Worse yet, we give them a perfunctory pat on the head and tell them things like, “God only gives us as much as we can handle,” “You should practice counting your blessings more,” or “It isn’t that bad. I know someone who…” Sometimes we go so far as to say things like, “You know what you should do?” “My cousin’s boyfriend’s aunt took…” or “You should pray about that.”

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I used to believe we did this because we couldn’t handle the idea that bad things could happen to any of us, that bad things do happen to good people, so we combat such fears by patronizingly swatting away the negative emotions of those going through such difficult experiences. Somehow, that was supposed to make everything better. It doesn’t. Even though I understand my own well-intended reactions to another’s negative situation can do more harm than good, I still catch myself saying them. When I do, I call myself and others who say them the “positivity police.” The positivity police are as negative as the Wicked Witch’s guards who feel indebted by her to act a certain way even though they don’t want to.

How should we react when someone we love is going through a difficult time? Be the Scarecrow, the Lion or the Tin Man. Heck, be Toto. Follow the yellow brick road with Dorothy.

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In watching the film, we might initially perceive the colorful scenes to be all fun and light and happy. That is not the case. Meeting the Scarecrow is fun after a bout of confusion over who was doing the talking. Meeting the Tin Man is fun after a time of confrontation with some grumpy trees. Meeting the Lion is fun, but only after Dorothy faces a fear head on. Much of the rest of the journey is spent overcoming obstacles and winning and losing battles, until finally Oz is reached. Not so fast! More challenges are uncovered and defeated before Dorothy is finally able to go home.

Let’s pause another moment, back up and look at an important figure in Dorothy’s journey. Glinda the Good Witch floats in safely encased in a bubble. She is all light and love and positivity. You might think I am about to criticize Glinda as being a member of the positivity police. I am not. Oh, yes, she is all positivity. But notice what she does and does not do. She points Dorothy in the right direction and gives her a gentle nudge. She gives Dorothy the necessary tools i.e. the Ruby Slippers. That’s it. She does not direct Dorothy to go around the forest. She does not put Dorothy in the bubble with her to go over the forest. She does not give Dorothy instructions on how to deal with the challenging situations she will likely encounter as she travels through the forest.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “light at the end of the tunnel?” Dorothy walking along the yellow brick road is a similar concept. The goal is to reach the end where things are happier again. The tunnel itself is not light. The tunnel is dark with challenges to navigate. Sometimes people get stuck somewhere along the tunnel and stop making forward progress towards the light. That is wallowing. Dorothy wallowed when she fell asleep in the flowers. She had friends who helped alter the environment so Dorothy could wake up from her wallowing and continue her journey, but they could not force her. She had to do it herself.

What is the key? Experience. The only way to reach Oz, to reach the end of the tunnel is to take the journey. There is no way around the tunnel, or over it, or under it to reach the light at the end. There is no shortcut to Oz.

Glinda had experience. She knew where Oz was. She also knew Dorothy already had the key to getting home. Glinda also knew that everyone’s yellow brick road is different. Everyone’s experiences are different. It is not positive to divert someone from their own experiences. To divert them is to rob them of their journey.

What can we do to help? Walk the path with them. In a way, it’s part of our own journey too. The Scarecrow helped Dorothy think of possible solutions and found his brain. The Tin Man helped Dorothy see the good in her surroundings and found his heart. The Lion helped Dorothy face her fears and found his courage. Toto was her friend and kept his family.

What did Dorothy gain in the end of her journey? Gratitude. The kind of gratitude that looks as mundane as an old black and white movie but is the greatest of stories one can tell from a perspective of real experience.

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