I got sick this week, again. It’s not just me, right? It’s been an especially cruel flu season. Anybody have theories to explain it? Antimicrobial resistance? Aliens? Antimicrobial resistance aliens?
Whatever it is, I woke up this morning ready to cancel appointments and renege on commitments. But when I started composing the “Sorry, I’m sick” emails and texts, I suddenly became very aware of this little voice suggesting that I give life a go today, even though I don’t feel my best.
Ah, that little voice. If you just ignore it, you can do whatever you want— cancel that meeting everyone’s been preparing for, go for it! Sleep instead! Eat chocolate in bed and watch old Monty Python videos!
But if you listen to it for even a second, you’re screwed— you won’t be able to un-hear the truth: that the symptoms themselves probably aren’t the real reason you don’t want to come into work. In fact, a part of you is glad you’re sick, because now you have a good excuse not to do the things you don’t feel like doing today.
I always struggle with this kind of “take responsibility for your life” thinking, because my defense is, but I’m not making this up! I really do have a fever—it’s a measurable fact. But I’m wondering if there’s a bigger lesson here (sigh, there always is.)
If I had to take a stab at what that lesson might be (and bear with me, my mind is foggy right now), I’d say that there are two ways to live: in reaction to circumstances, or as cause in the matter.
Living in reaction to circumstances sounds like, “Sorry I’m late, the traffic was terrible” and “I didn’t finish the project because I got sick.” Being cause in the matter is, “I know there’s always traffic at this time of day, so I’m leaving thirty minutes earlier to make it on time” and “I finished the project because I said I would, even though I got sick.” And as much as I love old Monty Python videos and chocolate in bed, I’d rather be the girl who finishes the project even though she got sick than the one walking into the meeting fifteen minutes late acting like traffic is still a legitimate excuse in LA.
There’s obviously a spectrum here— sometimes it’s food poisoning and you really do have to cancel the meeting because it’s unsafe for you to leave the vicinity of your toilet. And sometimes you overwork your body and it needs to rest. But how quickly does that become a slippery slope? You know that friend who always seems to cancel at the last minute because he’s sick? We totally believe he’s sick and we completely empathize, but a part of us starts to get annoyed after a while, like we suspect there’s something he’s not being fully responsible for in his life. I mean, as much as I hate being sick, I’ve noticed sometimes I’ll overexert myself on purpose, almost hoping I’ll get sick, so that I don’t have to be responsible for my life for a day or two. It’s kind of… sick, huh?
My guess is the way to stop that kind of self-destructive, circumstantially reactive thinking is to start honoring your word above feelings or physical sensations. Who knows— maybe when you realize that you’re going to honor your word even if you’re sick, you’ll start getting sick a little less often. The point is, nine out of ten times, I can work around any sick symptoms I have. Maybe I don’t show up to the meeting but arrange to call in instead. That way, I get a little rest, nobody gets exposed to my germs, and the work still gets done. Or maybe I write this column from my bed with whatever brain power I have available, even though it feels like there’s no way it’ll be good enough.
And maybe it’s not the best work I’ve ever done (how should I know? I’m sick!) But having done it despite my unfavorable circumstances, I feel better already.