Illness and Idleness



I’m sick and I’m reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. The book is an exploration of loneliness, an examination of how loneliness informs art, how difficult it is to express. Laing writes about the isolation of living in New York, about the anxiety of Edward Hopper’s paintings, Andy Warhol’s awkward silences, all kinds of solitary experience. Laing talks about the repulsiveness desperation of loneliness, but by talking about celebrity examples she overcomes the distastefulness of her subject. She explicitly links the artists’ biographies to their work, making direct connections between experience and expression.

There is something comforting in it as I lie here in bed, head cloudy with congestion, intestines aching. What is more isolating than sickness? Illness is internal, impossible to share. But it isn’t just pain that makes illness isolating. Sickness is disabling. While other do, the ill rest, sleep, hurt. They must conserve energy that others use. The ill do not take chances, do not challenge themselves, do not strive. Illness is boring, stationary, inactive. From the outside illness looks like apathy, but from the inside it feels like war. Each of us inhabits a single body and our experience within that body limits and defines our interaction with the world.

Imagining the experience of another body is the ultimate form of strangeness. Most of us simply can’t do it, like the narrator in Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral.” His encounter with the blind man in the story makes him uncomfortable and combative. When the blind man invites him to close his eyes, he chooses to keep them open, opting for the comfort of his familiar sight over the potential revelation of experiencing the world without it. He chooses not to engage.

It’s a privilege, this choice. The blind man doesn’t have the option of seeing; he is separated by something outside of his control. He cannot experience the world as the other man does. Sometimes empathy is not an available option. The sick cannot choose to inhabit the experience of the well, as much as they may long to.

Illness limits choice; it removes options. Often from the outside, these limitations seem negligible, they also seem like fussiness or obstinacy. Sometimes even from the inside it can seem that way, especially when symptoms are at a minimum and self-care means saying no to your job, friends, or family. With IBS, I can no longer be spontaneous. Feeling okay throughout the day requires a 3.5-hour morning ritual of exercise, hot drinks, a light meal, supplements, and a heating pad. It’s a rigid ritual, and it has taken away morning, which used to be my favorite time of day.

Difference is loneliness, lacking shared history, shared language, shared interests. As Laing points out in her discussion of Andy Warhol’s use of repetitive images, sameness is comforting, or in Warhol’s own words “all the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.” Conditions that make conformity impossible feel antagonistic, oppressive. When one is too ill to do, and must simply wait, it is easy to feel not only lonely, but purposeless.

In these moments of inactivity, to fight despair, I think about fairy tales where the heroine is frozen in place or locked in a tower, where she searches the earth or becomes lost in a forest, for years, decades centuries. For all that time, she is simply lost, waiting, dormant. I try to wait just as patiently.


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