I had a long bout with the flu recently, and the flu nearly won. I hadn’t been so sick since I was a kid. A few times I felt better and went to work, only to see the symptoms return, with reinforcements: fever, chills, sore throat, mysterious sweats, aching muscles, throbbing head, sinus congestion, blurred vision, hacking cough, and a demented kind of vertigo that sent the room bouncing around me like a crazed flamenco dancer. Food was tasteless. Sleep was elusive; whenever I dozed off, I woke myself with a coughing fit. I coughed until I gagged. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t even watch TV.
Against this the only defence was rest, liquids, and Aspirin to reduce the pain and take the fever down. I am unable to take most over-the-counter flu remedies because they interact with a medication I am on. Instead I relied on Buckley’s Cough Mixture, which is every bit as horrible as their television ads promise, and Fisherman’s Friend lozenges, which are so strongly flavoured that they seemed to take a layer of skin off my tongue.
For a couple of days I took a well-known commercial medication, thinking it wouldn’t do any harm. My daughters ended up taking me to the ER because they thought I was having a stroke. At the highly efficient Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon the attending physician ordered an MRI, an ECG, and a chest x-ray. They made me chew up two Aspirin tablets. A nurse with purple hair took blood from one arm while her colleague inserted an IV in the other. There was talk of admitting me for further observation, but eventually I pulled out the IV and insisted on going home. I don’t remember much of it, but Brigid and Caitlin assure me that I was intractable.
Now, I know how to be sick. Rheumatic fever and tonsillitis took a good two years out of my childhood, and at the time the only treatment was penicillin and bed rest. I spent weeks in the hospital, where I learned to rely on my own resources. I remember the pain and the fear, the loneliness, the daily blood-letting, endless tests, the long days and the longer nights. Still, if it was not enjoyable, it was all strangely new and mysterious. I learned to observe myself with a certain detachment. I don’t remember being bored. I came to believe, over the years, that if someone was bored it was his or her own fault.
It’s a common assumption. The American actor John Barrymore (1882 - 1942) was bored by long runs of a play, and was told repeatedly by his mother that it was because he was lacking inner resources. Similarly, the Bohemian-Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 - 1926) wrote to a young poet: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches. . . .” The distinguished theologian Ron Rolheiser, OMI, made a similar observation in a recent column in the Prairie Messenger (Nov. 2, page 10). “We’re bored,” he wrote, “because we’re too internally impoverished, distracted, or self-centred to take a genuine interest. . . .”
With respect, I disagree. What I found intolerable about my recent illness was not the symptoms or the longevity of it — these I have dealt with before — but the sheer, crushing boredom of enforced idleness. If it taught me anything, it was tolerance.
There are many circumstances over which we have no control that can bring forth boredom: chronic pain, depression, poverty, a crippling handicap, old age, being a caregiver or sometimes even a parent. You cannot blame someone for lacking inner resources when they have used up those resources in the necessities of living. The world is filled with the walking wounded. To blame them for their woundedness is to assume a position of privilege and moral superiority. It is to blame the victim.
The human landscape can be a bleak place. When we are incapacitated by chance or circumstance, we should look not for blame, but for grace.