The Upsides of Being Sick

Olivia Gilbert, Columnist

The air smells medicinal and stale. To your left lies a pile of crumpled tissues. To your right, a half-empty bottle of Dayquil and a mug of cold tea you wish someone could reheat. At your feet festers a plate of food that has long since lost its enticement. And between it all, on a throne of blankets, sits you — in the same clothes you’ve been wearing for three days now. How has it come to this?

Sickness is the kind of thing that sneaks up on us. It usually happens just when we’re in the midst of balancing it all: studying, going to the gym, writing essays, staying out late with friends and even calling our parents every so often. Then it all comes toppling down with a sneeze.

Gautama Buddha calls health “the greatest gift.” He says, “Without health, life is not life; it is only a state of languor and suffering.” Catching the common cold isn’t by any means the worst kind of suffering one can endure, but it does prevent full participation in life. For college students, illness’s practical implications are especially daunting—it means we face a snowballing pile of mounting work and social obligations upon recovery.

That sickness is the body’s way of telling us to slow down is common knowledge. So why is it so easy to let our well being, both physical and mental, fall to the wayside in the rush of everyday life?

Here, Gautama Buddha has more wise input:

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

The Buddha’s advice emphasizes the role of mental wellness in maintaining physical health. Although this holistic approach to health is by now widely accepted, it is much harder to execute in real time than one would expect. To “live the present moment wisely and earnestly” requires forethought and planning, established habits and clear priorities.

Sickness forces us to slow down, to distance ourselves from our usual busy lives. It is an opportunity to examine and assess our way of life, to remind ourselves what our priorities are. But this self-examination should involve more than reflection: We must take action when we realize our priorities are misaligned with what we value.

So next time you are sick, ask yourself what is important to you. Ask yourself if you are living according to those values. Might as well do something useful while you watch copious amounts of “The Office re-runs, right?

So many of us want to do everything. We spread ourselves too thin doing all kinds of activities, forgetting that we are only human and that we must respect our natural human boundaries. Instead of seeing sickness as merely something to get over, seize the opportunity to plan how you will live more “wisely and earnestly.” Be sure not to let your realizations fade into the background. Let your reflections be a springboard for further contemplation when you recover. Write down your goals for healthier living and tape it to your wall or desk as a constant reminder, at least until these new practices have become habit.

Though getting sick is almost always a hassle and is bound to be frustrating, it is also possible to feel gratitude towards our bodies for warning us that we are living outside of our means, for making us slow down and giving us an opportunity for rich self-examination. For me, times of sickness have taught me the most about how to be healthy, and the changes I’ve made — eating less meat, practicing yoga and making exercise and getting enough sleep a priority — have been some of the most impactful lifestyle changes I’ve ever made. In this way, not only is our health a gift, but our times of sickness may be too.

In closing, a few more words from the Buddha:

“Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”