There’s a poem by Michael Leunig in his Common Prayer Collection of 1993 that I particularly like. It starts “God bless those who suffer from the common cold …” and ends “We give thanks for blessings in disguise. Amen”.
A cold? A blessing in disguise? Many of us are familiar with Leunig’s creative approach to life, but did he go over the edge this time?
Years ago I used to get a cold a couple of times a year, until one encounter with my doctor got me thinking. Of course, if I wanted time off work because of a cold I had to see my doctor for a certificate. This particular time he examined me to determine that I didn’t have something worse than a cold, then jotted the usual details on the sickness certificate. The standard script: To whom it may concern; Name ... is unfit for work for ... days due to ... illness, signed Dr...
Well, I thought it was the usual details until he let me see it before I left the office: “Miriam is unfit for work because she’s sick of her horrible job”. Not quick enough to realise it was a joke (I was a bit unwell after all) I gasped in shock, but then laughed, and thought once again that I was lucky have such a perceptive doctor. He had written a proper certificate as well which he then gave me, throwing a smile over his shoulder as he headed off to the waiting room for the next patient.
At first I thought my doctor was just using humour as medicine; that little laugh certainly made me feel a bit brighter as I made my way home. However, it also got me thinking. Without indulging in magical thinking (“I created this cold in order to get some time off”) I started to wonder if there was indeed a pattern.
Well, looking back, I realised that there were times in my life when having a cold that kept me away from work was indeed a blessing. If I was fed up and bored with work at the time, having medical permission to stay at home for a couple of days was bliss. Even though my nose was sore from mopping it, I had aches and pains all over and no energy, it was a chance to lie around and listen to the radio, or read a book if I could be bothered, or maybe just drift in and out of sleep.
Perhaps it was the developing infection that was making me grumpy about work; we can tend to be irritable when sick. But perhaps I was run down because of being bored and fed up, so the virus was able to get a hold while my defences were down.
The relatively new field of study of the interplay between the mind and the immune system has shown that being emotionally balanced in turn keeps the physical body well. Stress has a major and almost immediate impact on the immune system, reducing its ability to detect and neutralise threats, making us vulnerable to all manner of illnesses, from the common cold onwards.
Things have changed since that doctor’s appointment. His joke helped me think about my situation, though it took some years before I really started to understand that I could do a lot to keep myself well. Apart from eating properly and getting some exercise, I gradually understood that when I was feeling stressed or run down I could consider taking just one day off, or even an afternoon, and give myself some time out. I could do something enjoyable to restore myself, or talk things over with someone and return with a fresh approach.
Of course, once we are sick we should take the time to get well again, for our own sake and to reduce the spread of infections. So many people work when they shouldn’t, simply because financially they can’t afford to miss a single day. But we need to think of it like this: refusing to take a small amount of time off to re-charge means that we become vulnerable to illness, which may end up making us miss even more work time than we would have taken for a short break.
Taking some time out, or learning and applying some stress management methods, helps us take care of ourselves emotionally, and physically. Let’s not wait till illness forces us to.