Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Garden of Sickness and Health: The Uses of Maladies

            At least, people say, we have our health. Don't take it for granted. 
            Oh, I don't. 
            Don't worry about the little things, we tell each other.The big things? Start with health.
            Oh, yes, nothing can be more important than that! And if you are healthy, be sure to appreciate your good fortune.
             But how to appreciate it?
            One answer to the latter question at least, I think, is by leaving it for a while. If we're fortunate our stay out of health, as opposed to in health, is only a brief one.  
            But when that occasional absence-of-health experience comes around, I think we should recognize a learning experience when we see one.
            When you're sick, or recovering from a cure, a lot of ordinary defences are stripped away.
            You have a bad night. You cannot sleep, and lie awake looking at the ceiling and the lights in the world outside a hospital window, the IV trolley, the door of the bathroom you prefer to think you will not need. You have looked at these objects for hours, and they have nothing more to tell you. You cannot ring for the nurse to bring you something, because there is nothing at this point you are permitted to have. Perhaps the breathing tube is still up your nose, so you cannot wipe the area successfully when it begins to run.
            You have slept already once, earlier this evening, but then someone woke you to take your vital signs and make sure you are all right. 'I was all right when I was sleeping,' you think, 'but I am not "all right" now. I am awake and perfectly miserable.' Hospitals put limits on sleep.  An hour; perhaps an hour and a half. You conclude, after much high-minded philosophical reasoning (and nothing else to think about), that human life without sleep is insupportable.
            Some time later, a few days, a week, maybe even longer, you realize that such nights are common, maybe even routine, for many people for long periods of time. Maybe all the time. You will go home in a few days, recuperate with some more bed rest in your own bed, resume your life. Many others are not so fortunate. Perhaps "health" doesn't always snap back; it's like an elastic stretched too far.
            Other bad nights, here there and everywhere, have other causes. Refugees sleep in the rain, holding their place at night in the endless queue that spirals out from the killing counties to the barbed wire and newly closed doors of Europe. Even in his own city, men and women sleep in doorways and parked cars. Perhaps sleeping in the back seat of an old car provides more interesting vistas than looking out of a hospital window, but he doubts it.
            How do we learn compassion? Does it come from our own illnesses with the concurrent bad nights and troubled thoughts? This is hardly a new idea. To be humbled by the flesh is a teachable moment.
            Old man Lear cast out on the heath on a stormy night discovers for a companion the poor mad beggar Tom. Poor wretch, the old king thinks, how many such others groan this cruel night?      
           "O! [Lear moans] I have ta'en too little care of this..."
           No one chooses illness, the loss of physical comfort. But if it comes you try to learn something from it.