The Spiritual Rewards of Stomach Flu

19 Mar

Almost every year during Lent I attempt to read T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” his beautiful, complicated poem about spiritual conversion. It’s the kind of highly allusive work that English majors feel they should understand and perhaps even quote on special occasions to prove their degree wasn’t totally useless.

Photo credit: Tinybuddha.com

After many years of trying to grasp it, I’m not ashamed to say I don’t know what the heck Eliot’s talking about most of the time.

There is, however, one passage that has stuck with me:

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

I thought of these words as I lay in bed recently tormented by a stomach virus that made mince-meat of the Martin household. I do not like to sit still. As my office colleagues can confirm, my attention wanders in any meeting that exceeds 20 minutes. I watch basketball games standing up. I walk at high speeds.

A few hours after the fever set in, though, I could barely move. I actually spent two hours trying to summon the energy to walk 10 feet from the bed to the bathroom to remove my contact lenses. Another internal debate about whether I’d benefit from some Advil required another 45 minutes before action was taken.

And yet at other times throughout this sleepless night, insights arrived with a razor-edge clarity that’s rarely in my possession. I recalled with startling vividness, for example, a close relative’s funeral from two years ago and the tidal wave of competing emotions it prompted in me, from sadness and regret to gratitude and mystery. It even brought a tear or two to the eyes of a guy who hasn’t cried since he found out how much money his college roommate makes as a radiologist.

As the night dragged on, I also became more attuned to my own body. My legs ached constantly and, coupled with nothing to do but think about them, forced me to pinpoint where the pain was coming from. I was able to take what felt like a generalized pain and identify that it was really originating from the lower leg – and that, yes, some Advil might address it. Most of all, I experienced renewed gratitude for good health, which many people do not have and which I’m usually too busy to even acknowledge, much less appreciate.

Such deeper awareness is the fruit of sitting still long enough to be present and mindful. It says something – something not complimentary – that I must rely on illness to put me in that place. Still, in this season of repentance, there’s something hopeful in the fact that even stomach bugs offer a second chance.

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