Once upon a time, it seems, we knew how to be ill. Now we have lost the art. Everyone, everywhere disapproves of being ill. Being ill is just not useful. The newspapers create a climate of guilt around it because of the time it takes away from useful, productive work….The stories make one feel that when ill you are somehow letting the side down, losing the nation money. Being ill is unpatriotic and terribly inconvenient to the work culture….It makes us feel guilty.
—Tom Hodgkinson, How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto
I enjoy convalescence. It is the part that makes the illness worthwhile.
—George Bernard Shaw
It started with a tickle in the back of my throat and a stuffiness in my head. Perhaps summer allergies, I thought. Then the news came from a friend that they had tested positive for COVID, and we had visited with one another outside a few days earlier. My first at-home COVID-19 test was negative. Soon Ben was experiencing symptoms, too. Eventually home tests revealed what we’d already feared, after more than two years of avoiding COVID, vaccinated and with one booster, we were both sick. And unfortunately we were not alone. The newest variant of the virus has proved to be a potent strain, with numbers of infections on the rise in Rowan county and across the entire country.
We chose to isolate until we had negative rapid tests, which took over a week. Luckily we were able to stay home and rest, treating our symptoms with over the counter medication. Even though we were isolating, we were not alone! Groceries were left on my front step. Care packages arrived on my back porch. Messages of support and prayers came from near and far. Genny Jenkins stepped in to help find folks to fill in for me in worship that first Sunday. Bob Pryor kindly agreed to preach and Alana Scott served at the communion table. In the office Barbara Marsh ably fielded extra duties, too. I am so very grateful to everyone who pitched in and for all the many kindnesses shared with us.
Showing kindness to oneself often is a challenge in our society which prizes productivity and looks askance at idleness. Being ill is inconvenient. Just last week the president tested positive for COVID. Immediately videos, tweets, and announcements proclaimed we shouldn’t worry, he was hard at work. Powering through illness is often viewed as a virtue. Now that we’ve lived through 2 1/2 years of a global pandemic, I hope we’ve learned the hard lesson that when we’ve encouraged pushing through sickness often we’ve unwittingly exposed others to risk of disease as well.
In his little book Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence, Dr. Gavin Francis shares wisdom he has learned over his years as a doctor treating patients on four continents. The word convalescence emerged in the 15th century, rooted in the Latin, meaning “to grow strong together.” Rather than “pushing through” symptoms, Dr. Francis argues that individuals recovering from prolonged symptoms embrace the concept of “pacing.” A healthy recovery involves developing the skills to recognize what our bodies are telling us, to “begin to slow down and stop an activity before they begin to exhaust their energies.” An April 2022 National Geographic article quotes Alba Miranda Azola, co-director of Johns Hopkins Post-Acute COVID-19 Program, “We have found that patients with post-viral fatigue that push through and enter a crash cycle have overall functional decline.” Indeed, the emerging advice for recovery reflects this reality: Stop, Rest, Pace.
As I’m continuing my own recovery, I’m wondering if there is wisdom in the practice of convalescence for our congregations, too? After all, this pandemic has not only affected individuals but also changed our most beloved institutions. Rather than return to old habits and practices, can we learn the new skills of listening to our common life together? What is Spirit asking of us in this moment? What would it mean for us to “Stop, Rest, Pace”?
A native of Illinois, Rev. Nancy Gowler lived for 26 years in the Pacific Northwest. She joined the ministry of First Christian Church in Morehead, KY, in July of 2020.