I’ve been sick this past week. Pretty sick actually – I haven’t been this sick in a long time. My throat was badly swollen and inflamed, so I couldn’t really eat anything, and I was weak and achy. I had a consistent fever for several days. When I have a fever, it seems every time I drift off to sleep I end up in a repeating loop of a dream just strange and uncomfortable enough to shake me back to consciousness.
It seems every time I get sick enough to be significantly inconvenienced, I get a little starry eyed and philosophical. I think that’s because it’s such a forced change in perspective – one day, I am my normal self: my body is functioning “properly”, or at least as I’ve grown accustomed to it functioning. I can sleep, I can eat, I can run or ride a bike, I can work and concentrate for extended periods of time. The next day, without warning or reason, I can’t sleep. I can’t eat, so I’m weak all the time. I can’t walk up the stairs without feeling dizzy and out of breath. Lack of sleep has left my thoughts disjointed, sometimes incoherent.
The difference in my abilities between the two days is stark, and out of my control.
We’ve all got identities that we associate with, that we lovingly (or not-so-lovingly) craft, massage, and develop over years. We use these identities as a narrative to describe who we are, or maybe who we want to be, or maybe who we’re afraid we are. I think most people hold this internal narrative dearly. I do.
My identity has a lot to say about me physically being a person who enjoys running, hiking, mountain biking, skiing. Being in reasonably good physical shape. Walking for no other purpose than to walk.
Mental ability and attitudes might be even more important to my identity. I think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person. I think of myself as a problem solver, who can, with the right time and motivation, understand the roots of a problem, and suggest a solution. I think of myself as self reliant.
Other people might particularly value being a hard worker, being honest, being family oriented, being reliable, being a good friend. Being committed to a cause or an ideal.
Now I have to get into freedom for a bit to attempt to tie this all together. It seems important to us to be able to choose the tenets of our identities personally, individually. “Follow your heart”. “Be Yourself”. “Follow your dreams”.
We put a lot of weight on the individuality of each of our identities, and that individuality can only come via the distinctly individual freedom to choose the pillars of those identities. The way a person views himself, the parts of him he chooses to deem exemplary or important are meaningful.
Getting sick unveils a problem that I may know rationally, but don’t often have to face directly: All of the points of my (non-exhaustive) list of self identity tenets can be taken from me, as is so neatly demonstrated when I’m sick. I can’t run. I can’t hike, I can’t go on long walks. I can’t really even think straight. I can’t pay much attention to my kids, or enjoy spending time with them, at least not in the ways that I’m familiar with.
Of course, my sickness was temporary, and I’m feeling better already – tomorrow, I’ll likely be back to normal, and it will feel great, and I’ll go back to enjoying exercising the muscles of what makes me “me”. But we might consider this just a lucky break. Tomorrow I could be hit by a car, and have a broken hip never heal quite right. I could end up with an infection that results in losing a limb. I could become paralyzed from the neck down. It’s easy to identify the many ways that the physical traits I hold dear to who I am as a person might be lost.
Illness and exhaustion can change my willingness to use mental energy where I don’t absolutely have to. Chronic illness could do this in a way that never ends, never gets better. Neurocognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s can alter my ability to think and remember. Even my mind, my thoughts, my personality, aren’t safe, aren’t static, and can be taken.
All of these things can happen without warning, and without my control – I cannot take steps to absolutely prevent events that will take away one or all of the tenets of my self identity, but leave me, mercilessly, living.
We do not have complete freedom to choose the pillars of our identities, we’re choosing from a select subset of possibilities that we happen to be attainable based on our life circumstances. This set of possibilities changes as life goes on – items can go off the list (as we get older, we’re less likely to be capable of significant athletic pursuit), and items can come onto the list (we learn new things, we come into money, we evolve as people).
So the nice thing about a particularly obnoxious bout with strep throat is, I suppose, the opportunity to be reminded of who you think you are, and how little freedom you have to choose to be that person permanently.