Last week, I was reminded that I am not Superwoman as I was knocked over by a stomach bug. I don’t get sick often, so am not complaining about being forced to lie down. On the contrary, I am here to consider its virtues.
How busy I am varies wildly from week to week, but I lean towards having a daily to-do list six days out of seven. I like having one day set aside to ignore email, poetry submissions, laundry, bills, and even my own writing. One day when all the normal tasks of adult life can be left in the corner: the grocery store run, the dog-poop pick up, the sticky kitchen floor that begs for a nice mop. Shh. Just be quiet and I will be quiet, too.
That quiet, no-real-work day is usually Sunday. I guard it fiercely, especially Sunday mornings because that is my drink-coffee-and-read-the-newspaper-with-Mick sacred time. May not be all that exciting to someone else, but I am grouchy if I miss it. I particularly like that it does not involve small talk.
Anyway, I barreled into last week the way I usually do, with the biggest to-do list set for Monday, followed by a slightly smaller one for Tuesday. And, very early Tuesday morning, say one-ish, I was awakened with stomach pains clear in their intent: We shall make you miserable for the next 24-48 hours so that you must. Simply. Stop.
So I did. I stopped. I migrated from the bedroom to the living room couch, binge-watched Gilmore Girls on Netflix and ignored the news, ignored the lit mag I co-edit, closed my eyes to the work-in-progress on my writing desk. I drank tea, ate toast. I did not, in any way, attempt to “work through” my bug. I used to do that, showed up at whatever job I had whether I was sick or healthy. Sometimes I could not afford to miss work. Sometimes I saved my own sick leave to care for my kid if he or she got sick. And sometimes I was just too stubborn to admit that I wasn’t feeling well. I worked through illness because that’s what tough working-class people did. Only those with no work ethic lounged around on the couch.
I still have a lot of that philosophy in me, but I have finally understood that “working through it” both prolongs the illness and spreads its unique joy to others. I cannot overstate the great healing power of being able to take a whole day to say, “I am not moving until I feel better. The hell with everything else.”
Not everyone is this lucky. I know people who cannot miss work, no matter how they feel. These are people with fantastic work ethics, but perhaps there is no sick leave, or there is insufficient sick leave coupled with strict rules about doctors’ notes that make the option of taking a day to recover when illness strikes impossible. And what good does this kind of system really do? The few who would abuse it would find a way to abuse any system, so why not err on the side of employee health? Of a healthy workplace? A healthy society? Not problems I’m here to solve, but thinking about this does lead me down yet another path: that our brains also need to lie down sometimes.
Being sick for a day took my brain off-duty right along with my body. I have often noticed how my creativity flows or how sharp my editing is when I’m crunched for time versus when I’ve had enough rest. My work suffers when I take no breaks. I miss mistakes, forget pieces. And, like when I miss my Sunday coffee-newspaper thing, I get grouchy. Very grouchy.
I recently discovered my new favorite term for how I feel when I know my brain needs a break: cerebral congestion. The term was used in a Scientific American article by Ferris Jabr titled, “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime” (October 15, 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/). The article discussed research on how the brain functions during times of rest, meditation, and daydreaming and how that all contributes to mental acuity. One of the big take-away messages is that being busy all the time is not better for us. It’s downright counter-productive, and business like Apple, Google, Facebook, Coca-Cola, and many others – successful business, all – have explored how this translates into taking better care of their employees. That, in turn, translates into a more stable, successful business.
Which brings me right back to the idea of lying down. And taking the sick day. And remembering to stay healthy by making those tasks on that to-do list stay in the corner sometimes. Because they’ll still be there tomorrow.
Perhaps you should go lie down.