A few days ago, I went to work sick.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t get out of bed. But I wanted to stay in bed.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t get dressed. But I didn’t want to get dressed.
I was not so sick that I did not stay up past midnight the night before finishing my lecture. But I should not have finished it.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t go to work. But I should not have done it.
I can only say that now that I have completely failed to be sensible. Of course, I went to campus. Of course, I delivered my brilliant lecture noting that it was made more brilliant by the halo of rainbows that seemed to wobble in and out of the periphery of each powerpoint slide. Of course, I stayed on campus after teaching and kept all of my appointments.
Of course, I dragged my sorry self home at the end of a long day and wondered why I did that to myself.
You have totally done this too. Don’t even try to pretend otherwise.
I wonder now why I did not take Sheila Heti’s excellent advice. Heti reminds us that it is especially important to take a sick day right before you are really, really sick:
I recommend being sick in bed especially when you are not that sick. When you are seriously knocked out, eyes crusted over, sneezing nonstop, it’s hard to have life-changing epiphanies. The sick days we must take advantage of are those when it’s just a simple cold. The days when, if we pushed ourselves, we could get out of bed; the days when all it would take is a shower to make us feel 70 percent better. Those are exactly the days we should choose to be sick in bed. You still have your brain; you’re not aching all over. You just need to take things slower.
Heti’s recommendations are so gentle, and so right, that you should just, if you have not already done so, read the whole thing yourself. But, for now, let me draw out few things in particular. First, note the reference to life-changing epiphanies in the above passage. For Heti, being sick in bed, ideally, is a chance to pause and arrive at illumination of some kind. It is not just about lying there, buried in tissues, hoping that the meds will kick in soon so that they rest of the day can be spent in sweet oblivion. Although that would be nice too.
I thought about the times when I have been sick in bed. I have never been as wise as Heti. I have only been sick in bed when I have been really, really, really sick. In a hospital. Once, that happened the year before I came up for tenure. I was sick for a while. Months. I came out of that with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the friends who saw me through, but also with a wonderfully recalibrated attitude towards getting tenure. After being very sick, and then no longer being sick, I came to the realization that I was pretty awesome generally, and pretty awesome at my job specifically, and that any tenure and promotion committee would have to be blind not to see that. I also finished my book in four months. I had been sitting on that thing for over four years before that. It took getting sick and forcing myself to only read murder mysteries and trashy magazines for many months to kick my ass in gear. I can say now that I did not do it because I was afraid I would not get tenure. It’s hard to believe, but that honestly was not the motivation. I did it because I had been very sick and then I was not and I realized that I should just finish that thing. Not because it was my life’s work or anything like that. Just because it was something I should do.
There is no logic to any of this. It’s just how it went down. I’m not even sure it was a life-changing epiphany. It felt much more prosaic.
I think back to that now and I wonder why I put myself through that. Maybe I could have just done it after being a little bit sick?
That is the second thing that I wanted to draw out from Heti’s essay. She suggests that the best sick days are the ones where you are not really all that sick. How hard it is to really take that wisdom to heart, to know to push the pause button just before the full-blown fevered climax. That this is the real trick.
And this trick is connected to the third and final piece of tender wisdom that I want to sit with. “Why,” she asks, “is it so hard to stop doing, to just rest?”
Although Heti connects this question to the need to value unproductivity simply for its own sake, in my case, there is also some unthinking machismo involved. I’m not saying it is like that for you. I am just owning up to the ridiculousness of the way that I man up.
Last fall, I had a bike accident. I flew over the handlebars and my chin bore the brunt of the fall. I was really lucky. There was a lull in traffic so there were no cars around me right at that moment. I had my helmet on. I was not going fast. So I was a bit banged up, and cut my chin up enough to need some stitches, but I was otherwise ok. Still, I couldn’t really open my mouth without pain (hello, stitches). Did I go into class the next day and lecture for two hours? Yep. Did I run my tutorial after, wincing the whole time? Yep? Did I refuse to cancel any of my appointments? Yep. Did anybody make me do that? Nope. Would my teaching or any of the other parts of my job have been compromised if I had just called in sick and stayed in bed, mouth shut, drinking smoothies and reading murder mysteries and trashy magazines? Nope. Was I an idiot? Yep.
Am I writing this right now while still sick? Yep.
Am I ever going to learn? I really hope so. And if I don’t, I hope you do. Do you feel a little sick? Don’t man up. Keep your jammies on. Stay in bed.