When I teach my Sick Lit course, I always begin with Work Death and Sickness, by Leo Tolstoy. In this short fable, Tolstoy imagines a perfect world where no one has to work, no one gets sick, and everyone dies at exactly 100 years old. But people don’t need each other, either.
So God makes it necessary to work to survive, hoping that people with different talents and strengths will join together to create prosperity. Man is no longer self-sufficient. When he comes back, God discovers that the strong men have forced the weak to work for them. Next, God gives man uncertainty in death; if men can die at any time, they certainly won’t waste any of their time fighting. But when God comes back he discovers that the strong have used this uncertainty as another tool to subjugate the weak.
In a last-ditch attempt to foster unity and brotherhood, God allows sickness to come into the world. Sickness is his final tool. The great leveler. Surely the healthy will care for the sick, knowing that they’ll get sick too and need others to care for them in turn.
Instead, man creates hospitals:
And again God went away, but when He came back to see how men lived now that they were subject to sicknesses, he saw that their life was worse even than before. The very sickness that in God’s purpose should have united men, had divided them more than ever.
That the sight of sick folk might not disturb the pleasures of the wealthy, houses were arranged in which these poor people suffered and died, far from those whose sympathy might have cheered them, and in the arms of hired people who nursed them without compassion, or even with disgust.
Moreover, people considered many of the illnesses infectious, and, fearing to catch them, not only avoided the sick, but even separated themselves from those who attended the sick. Then God said to Himself: ‘If even this means will not bring men to understand wherein their happiness lies, let them be taught by suffering.’ And God left men to themselves.
And, left to themselves, men lived long before they understood that they all ought to, and might be, happy. Only in the very latest times have a few of them begun to understand that work ought not to be a bugbear to some and like galley-slavery for others, but should be a common and happy occupation, uniting all men. They have begun to understand that with death constantly threatening each of us, the only reasonable business of every man is to spend the years, months, hours, and minutes, allotted him — in unity and love. They have begun to understand that sickness, far from dividing men, should, on the contrary, give opportunity for loving union with one another.
I begin my course with this fable primarily for the final line. Sickness is an opportunity. This is the overarching theme for the course. The one we keep returning to in every story. The theme that frames everything else we do.
In the past few days, many of you have written me in private, worried that I’m being too hard on myself. That I’m taking too much blame for my dad’s illness and my role in his (lack of) recovery. That I’m not giving myself the grace that I write about. And that I’m remembering only the bad.
I’m trying to explain how nearly impossible it is to love someone, anyone, when you’re trying to love unabstractly. When you’re trying to love the real them with the real you. How it’s even more difficult to love someone who’s falling to pieces in front of you. I’m trying to be honest. To tell the true story of the true thoughts you have. Even the thoughts you don’t want to have. Know you shouldn’t have. I’m trying to show how it is when one human tries to connect with another human. A sick one.
I don’t even really know everything I’m trying to say yet. But I do know that sickness is an opportunity. It was for me, too.