Tyler suspects that it is on account of my getting older that I am getting sick more often these days. This hypothesis may hold some water, especially given that other possible explanations, such as me being more stressed out lately or living in a less salubrious environment, do not. (School is going just fine, thank you.)
Age, maturity, and immunity do not always walk hand in hand, but I have noticed that old sick people have a tendency to care less about their illness and, in particular, what it touches. What I mean is this: young children can run rampant with snotty noses and grubby faces, and most people will let this pass. Then, between the ages of about ten and sixty, we’re socialized to keep our hands to ourselves; going out in public with communicable disease is (rightly) frowned upon. Once you become grandmother-aged, however, folks start to give you a little more leeway once again. Just look at my grandmother, who sneezes on everything and doesn’t give a damn.
I once asked her, “A-ma, how do you say, ‘Bless you!’ in Taiwanese?'”
“What’s ‘bless you’?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s um… if someone sneezes, you have to say ‘bless you’ to, uh, make sure they’re okay.”
“We don’t say that in Taiwanese,” was her answer.
Maybe this comes partly from the expectation that human beings on both ends of the life spectrum will fall ill more often, so we grant them clemency for merely being as flawed as nature intended. Maybe we feel less social responsibility for those outside our age group: old and young are some other family’s problem, but if you’re an adult and you work in my office, don’t you dare touch the break room fridge with your bacterial fingers.
Or maybe after a certain point, be that in age or in stages of disease, we may simply cease to care about what others may think of us, and this attitude goes both ways. Two days ago, when I was stumbling around my house bleary-eyed and enveloped in the miasma of the common cold, I made the barest of attempts to stay out of the way of my roommates, but mostly just hoped that they’d forgive me for leaving colonies of viruses in my wake. “I’ll disinfect everything when I feel better,” I thought, “but for now please leave me be.” And they did, bless their hearts.
When it comes to sickness and convalescence, there’s a fine line between selfishness and self-care. I remember when I was nineteen and invincible, I told my friend that my life was so busy that I didn’t have time to be sick. Katie, who was two years older and infinitely wiser, exclaimed, “You always have time to be sick!” She meant, you must make time, when you’re sick, to get better. If you don’t, then your sickness will become worse, and then you’ll find you have no time for anything else.
So, I think that older people, or those with more life experience, are less averse to the ‘selfish’ side of recovery. Cancel everything I had on my agenda; I just want to feel better as soon as possible, damn it! And out the window go all social graces; if you don’t like the sound of me hocking a loogy, take it up with my respiratory system, not me. But this is not exactly the vice of selfishness. It’s prioritizing self care; and in fact, I’d rather call it selflessness. Which is a virtue.
And here’s where I get biblical. The context of chapter 12 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is that he’s telling the early church that its diversity is good; that each of its members has different gifts that can be used for everyone’s benefit. Each member, in fact, is like a part of the human body: one person is like an eye, another is like a hand. Both are legitimate parts and have their vital functions. Here is an excerpt:
“As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:20-26, )
Again, it is not selfish to take care of your body. What is selfish is to have a cold, think, “Dang, my runny nose is really underperforming today. I think I’ll cut it off and throw it away,” and neglect to care for it just as you would care for any other part of your body. Because we’re all connected, you see. The person in your community who seems to be a dead weight? Your appendix. Your neighbor whom you haven’t seen in a while and wonder if they’re still there? Your abs. The guy who punched your pastor in the face that one time? Allergies. “Well, I could do without allergies,” you say. Still — better to have an overactive immune system than none at all, am I right?
Christians must take care of one another because we are members of the same body; “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” And, importantly, this metaphor must extend outside the walls of our churches. All human beings are one creation, one big body created in the image of Christ, and Paul wants us to treat the least of these — our tonsils and gut microbes, so to speak — with honor and dignity. If our fellow human beings in other countries are under attack, we must care for them (be a blessing to them), as we would family. The selfish thing to do in this case would be to ignore their plight. To let them drown. To let them be beaten by corrupt authorities. To let them be stopped at the border and sent back to their war-torn Muslim countries of origin. Is it clear yet?
As I get older, yes, I care more about fighting my own sickness with less attention to the socially acceptable ways to do so. Sorry not sorry for blowing my nose so loudly. It is fitting, I think, that I am also now learning how to fight the sickness of modern American society — the social ills of tribalism, xenophobia, and institutionalized hatred, among others — with disregard for how it might make some folks uncomfortable. Lives are at stake. Let us be selfless for the sake of the survival of goodness.
Word of the Day: photoptarmosis, also called the photic sneeze reflex, is a condition in which a person who looks into a bright light (or steps out of a dark room into sunlight) involuntarily sneezes.