I’ve been sick six times since September. Three colds. One sinus infection. Two bouts with a stomach bug, the last of which was not unlike the famous fight Muhammad Ali had with Joe Frazier in Manila in 1975: like Ali, I was ultimately victorious, yet I also feel like I lost part of myself along the way.
I blame my two-year-old daughter. Rosie spent most of her first year of her life at home, cared for by a wonderful nanny three days a week. Her parents juggled schedules on the other two days. It was a good arrangement, and securely nestled in our home, she was kept safe from most of the viruses and bacteria that the rest of us contend with daily. Nannies don’t come cheap though, and negotiating schedules on those two days proved a chore, so we decided we’d put her in full time daycare this year. A spot opened in September and Amanda and I enthusiastically dropped her off, and dreamed of the caliber of work we could get done now that child care was out of our home and largely out of our mind. We were free! For the productive hours of 8:30-5, anyway.
The warning signs were there right from the start. Rosie was one of 15 toddlers, and I’d estimate 14 of them had prodigiously runny noses. Toddlers don’t cough into their elbows or smear on the Purell. Our kiddo has become many things over the past five months: a banana connoisseur, lover of dogs big and small, master of barnyard animal sounds. She is now also a 25-pound disease vector.
A couple weeks back, laid up from that daycare-derived sinus infection, my thoughts turned theological. I tend to be the sort that binges Netflix while convalescing, but occasionally a moment of mystical clarity intrudes (abetted, I’m sure, by the psychotropic properties of Advil Cold & Sinus), and well, when that happens, I let it take me by the hand.
I pondered a theology of sickness. Some questions and answers came and went quickly: was my illness an affliction sent by a vengeful God who was mad at me for something I did? No, that didn’t seem right. As I recall, Jesus didn’t really track those dusty roads of Palestine, preaching the kingdom and spreading disease.
So I considered creation, and the wonders of the intricacy of my immune system. A haughty thought took hold: maybe this is all to my benefit! I’m experiencing a temporary setback that will boost my immune system and ultimately make me healthier. A better, stronger Brian is on the way!
I reflected on eschatology: will our resurrection bodies get sick? I doubt we’ll get dengue fever, but what about sniffles? Or will we be free and clear from it all? And if so, does that mean our immune system just an artifact of the old order, a post-Fall stopgap solution? This all seemed quite speculative.
I walked upstairs to the library and looked through the shelves for something to encourage deeper reflection. I found a copy of Eula Biss’ On Immunity: An Inoculation. Not theology, exactly, but a cultural history of immunology, vaccines and the cultural risks of the anti-vax movement. Early in the book, Biss mentions Graham Rook, a microbiologist who invented the “old friends” hypothesis. Rook suggests that our immune systems aren’t strengthened by overcoming childhood illnesses as we often think, but through exposure to the sorts of pathogens that have been with us for millennia. Ancient viruses and parasites and bacteria, the long, long term tenants of our sinuses, throats, lungs and bellies.
I can’t assess the credibility of the theory; everything I know about immunology would barely fill a much shorter column. But I like the metaphor, and I think there’s a practical theological lesson therein, one that reminds me of what sort of creature I am.
My infirmity is my old friend. Something alien, other, yet quite intimate. Often needy, occasionally inconsiderate. Something that understands me from the inside out, and with blunt honesty reminds me that I’m a creature with limits. A partner that punctures my fantasies of productivity, my illusions of control, and reminds me I’m not my own master.
Sometimes, friends are just the worst.
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