Getting sick on vacation is bad enough. During university (20+ years ago), I was notorious for getting sick every Christmas break. Within 24 hours of finishing my last exam and making my way home, I’d come down with something. I’d end up sleeping ridiculous
amounts of time, trying to fight whatever chest cold or flu bug that had attached itself to me.
This year, however, in the midst of an incredibly relaxing summer, I somehow came down with pneumonia. In August. While on vacation. The most common question, besides “are you feeling any better?” has been “how in the world did you get pneumonia in August?!”
I’m not sure I’ll ever figure that one out. But through this experience, I’ve had three unexpected reactions that have held my attention.
A Dose of Empathy
So, three rounds of antibiotics, more than a week of sick days, and over a month after all of this started, I am now just starting to feel somewhat normal again. That I am even attempting to write about this experience indicates that I must be “on the upward swing.”
While I felt horrible the first couple weeks, had a constant hacking cough, lost my appetite, and napped several times a day, apparently things could have been worse. To paraphrase one of the doctors I saw: “If you were elderly, we’d probably keep you in the hospital. But you’re not. Your young and healthy. Your body can handle this.” Basically, “Suck it up, Buttercup. You’ll be okay.”
But the reality is pneumonia can be deadly. Before this started, I was working out three days a week, running another day or two a week, and eating well. I kept an eye on my stress level and diligently practiced spiritual disciplines. I was in a good space. Somehow this bug managed to shut me down. For someone whose immune system is compromised, who deals with other health issues, or who is already run down and under a lot of stress, they struggle to stay hydrated and to get enough oxygen when pneumonia hits.
As I started to recover, I found myself being more attentive to others who are dealing with sickness. Sure, my ears perked up when someone talked about their experience with pneumonia. But through this season, a deeper sense of empathy has emerged, particularly for those who feel physically vulnerable to potential health crises.
Fearfully & Wonderfully Made
The doctor explained to me that the crackling lungs and wheezing I experienced came from a small fluid build up a lower portion in one of my lungs. I could not believe how that little infection affected my energy, my appetite, my sleep patterns, and even whether I could walk up stairs without getting winded. At some point, every part of my body seemed to ache.
As the second round of antibiotics kicked in, I discovered a sense of awe slowly surfacing. I’ve sung the about the “knee bone connected to the thigh bone” before. But experiencing in a new way this summer the integrated nature of our bodies through this short-term sickness evoked wonder in me. I have a new appreciation for the psalmist’s declaration that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Perhaps, even more than the physical connections, this sense of wonder has evolved around noticing how emotions, relationships, and spiritual well-being are all entangled with our physical well-being. Watching the Olympics while sick became a different emotional experience. Normally I shout and cheer and participate in our binational family banter of U.S.A. vs. Canada. This year, while fighting pneumonia, my emotions were so fluid & unpredictable, I almost cried during a BMX qualifying round, as a rider walked his bike across the finish line after a crash.
We are intricately woven together. As I regain my physical health and enter into my normal fall routines, I also can see ways that I am regaining capacity to engage relationally, that I have more brain space, and even that I am experiencing more thankfulness and joy in my spiritual disciplines. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Thankful & Humbled
In a culture that values independence and self-sufficiency, a sickness that puts you out of commission and makes you dependent on others has a way of humbling of you. At least that’s been part of my experience. I’ve had to recognize that I can’t do everything – not even everything for myself. And in that humbling context, a sense of gratitude has emerged.
One morning in the middle of fighting the pneumonia, the first words in my prayer time were “Thank you, God, for the gift of breath.” I have repeated that prayer many times over the last several weeks. Along with the simple act of breathing, I found myself expressing thanks for lots of little things that I tend to take for granted: comfortable couches, the ability to read & think clearly, the reaction time needed to drive a car safely, a good pillow and air conditioning, and a whole lot more.
That thankfulness has deepened as I recognize how much I have been given. I have an understanding, compassionate, and responsive family. Without complaint, my work gave me room to rest and get my feet back under me. I have easy access to quality medical care. I have air conditioning and a house that is in good condition. Good food is always available. (I could go on.) In many ways, these privileges are not things I have worked for or acquired. They truly are gifts. And recognizing them as gifts rather than rights has shifted my posture over the last few weeks. In this way, it’s not just my physical health that’s being renewed, but through this experience, my sense of gratitude is being renewed.
How about You?
Have you had an experience – sickness, or otherwise – that helped you become more empathetic to what other people? What situations have evoked a sense of wonder and awe in you? In what unexpected circumstances has your sense of gratitude been renewed?