For most of the century, we have done a marvelous job at removing the specter of disease and death in the Western world. Death is often presented as a problem that can be solved, or at the very least, battled and delayed for as long as possible. We prefer not to ever think or talk about it. The pandemic, however, has forced us to confront the closeness of death—and the unpredictability of our citizenship in the country of the well. The prospect of illness raises our primal hackles. We want to hide ourselves away, find safe refuge, and locate and then hoard a cure.
I’m in a weird place with my own mortality, as I suspect many of us are, and I’ve been thinking and reading a lot lately about the landscape of illness. It is a terrain that is marked by paltry language and often poorly told stories. We don’t know how to talk about our bodies; the paradoxes of medicine confound us; words fail. We are often at a loss for words to describe how we feel in our mortal frames. How can I express the pain I feel to someone who is not feeling it? Are our bodies our allies? Or are they our enemies, liable to betray us at any moment? When will we pass over into that shadowy country of sickness?
Two luminous writers always come to my mind on the subject of the sick: Virginia Woolf, in her essay “On Being Ill,” which you can read in its entirety online, and Susan Sontag’s short, deep book Illness as Metaphor, written after her cancer diagnosis.
Both Woolf and Sontag discuss landscapes and countries when they reach for language about health. Sontag references “the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick,” and Woolf writes, eloquently,
“Consider how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness….”
When the lights of health go down, we retreat inward—and somehow find ourselves in an “undiscovered country,” as Woolf says. I have found it helpful, in my own illnesses, to have a richer internal language about sickness. The country may still be unknown, but its borders may now have ramparts supported by a stronger vocabulary. In this vein, I’ve gathered stories about the body and what happens when its machinery runs predictably and when it doesn’t. Stay warm, and be well, dear reader.
Excerpted from this week’s issue of Story Matters.
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I’m a poor excuse for a real Episcopalian, but I have enjoyed, since my conversion, participating in the liturgical calendar. The season of Lent feels especially poignant this year, in the endless pandemic. We are finding ways to be more intentional about it this year: to read more poetry, light more candles, watch less TV, pursue fewer mindless distractions. The weather is an absolute nightmare, so it has been a fitting time to be somber and meditative. There’s nothing else to do: no one to see, nowhere to go. We think about all of the things we have to be grateful for, and we feel humbled to count so many.
Moses, for his part, is very thankful for snow plows:
And I was thankful to spy these four hidden deer in the woods on a cold morning walk with Pyrrha:
We are quiet and we are trying to be at rest, but we are more eager for spring than ever.