I woke up this morning to a congested head, a headache, and the chills. I don’t often get sick, but when I do I always feel compelled to just push through it. I don’t have time to get sick. There is simply way too much to accomplish in twenty-four hours, and I am not about to neglect those duties. Of course, I often pay the price for this later, but I never seem to learn well enough to do it differently the next time around.
So, this morning, I forced myself out of bed for Lauds. I could barely keep my head up, but I was determined to start my day the way I wanted to start my day, illness be damned. I made it to the Benedictus before I couldn’t keep my head up any longer. I popped a couple Dayquil and crawled back into bed. As I drifted off into sick sleep, I thought about what being sick in the monastery looks like. What would Benedict have to say about my inability to make it through prayer?
Luckily, Benedict is very explicit in the Rule. Chapter 36 is entitled “The Sick Brothers”, and in it Benedict lays out the care for brothers who are ill, and the overarching theme of this chapter is radical compassion as spiritual practice. Benedict says, “Care for the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ” *. For Benedict, caring for the sick is not only our duty as Christians, but is an opportunity to serve another as we would serve Christ. This compassion for the sick even supersedes some of Benedict’s most rigorous rules. The sick are given their own room, they receive a personal attendant, and they even get to eat meat. It’s as if Benedict throws the book out the window in order to serve the sick brother or sister.
This is where I confess my own shortcomings when it comes to caring for the sick in my own life. As I said before, when I get sick I feel like I cannot take time to recover, I need to power through it and just hope it goes away eventually. This lie I tell myself filters into the way I treat those around me who are sick. My wife often receives the brunt of it. When she feels sick (as she is right now), I find that my first thought is, “Well, get over it”. Not compassionate in the least. It’s hard for me to understand why someone would let sickness stop them from doing the things they need to do. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t. This judgmental and unreasonable response to another person’s need is completely antithetical to the nature of Benedictine spirituality, and of decentness itself. But, if I refuse to care enough about myself to consider my health and recovery, how can I ever expect to care for someone else who needs my care and compassion?
I suspect that I am not alone in feeling like I simply do not have time to get sick. So much of this feeling is wrapped up in my fear of being perceived as weak. As an American man it has been programmed into my mind that sickness equals weakness, and the worst thing an American man can be is weak. So we push through it, neglecting our own self-care at our peril. A survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians found that 36 percent of men only went to the doctor when they were really sick, and psychologists who looked at this survey speculated that societal and cultural sensibilities about what is “manly” may also play a role. “According to one study by researchers at Rutgers, for example, men who strongly endorsed old-school notions of masculinity – the ideal man being a strong, silent type who doesn’t complain about pain – were only half as likely as other men to seek preventive health care” **. Even if we don’t fully endorse this image of what a man is, we’ve picked up enough messages over the course of our lives that remind us to be tough, and to push through the pain. Unfortunately, this masculine myth may help to explain why women tend to outlive men. We’d rather appear tough and capable than take care of our own health needs.
Part of becoming whole selves is the requirement that we care for our own well-being. This is something that is often rejected in our culture of efficiency and productivity. We apply these values even to our health and our relationships. We avoid the necessary maintenance of our bodies and minds so that we will not be perceived as lazy, or unproductive. It’s bad enough that we do it to ourselves, but this poor treatment of our own needs often is transmitted to those around us. This is exactly why I struggle to be compassionate when my wife becomes ill; I’m buying into the myth that sickness equals weakness, and weakness gets in the way of my productivity.
I wonder if this mindset plays a role in the battle for Paid Sick Leave in congress. Many people in this country have to decide between missing work and losing out on a paycheck, or recovering from an illness. It seems like common sense that people should be able to recover and not be put in economic danger, but our cultural value system rejects this notion. Time is money, and time off shouldn’t be rewarded. A New York Times article published last week discussed the Obama Administration’s rule that all federal contract workers will be required to provide paid sick leave to their employees. This piece-meal effort to enforce paid sick leave nationwide is in response to congresses refusal to pass the Healthy Families Act. The article states that “…more than 35 percent of private-sector workers do not have access to paid sick leave” ***. That is a huge number of people who may not be able to recover from an illness, or be able to care for a sick family member, without jeopardizing their economic position. This is not an experience that I know personally, but I cannot imagine the fear that illness might represent to those who cannot afford to recover. I hope that our leaders will do the right thing and mandate paid sick leave nationwide.
To care for the sick is to see a person as worthy of love and compassion. It is to recognize the Beloved in them. Benedict’s admonition to serve the sick as we would serve Christ, reminds us that the love of God in Jesus is to be found in the hands and feet of our brothers and sisters, and our willingness to care for their needs as we would care for our own. This means that we must learn to recognize the Beloved in us, so that we can also learn to care for our own needs. If we cannot see our own worthiness, we will never be able to see it fully in someone else. When we can see our brothers and sisters in this light, we will find that we are willing to throw whatever rules impede our compassion, straight out the window. So, rather than continue to play into the myth of sickness equals weakness, I’m going to get up, take a few more Dayquil, and go get my wife and I some soup. Just like Benedict would do.
*Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.