A Theological Reflection on Having Mono

A Theological Reflection on Having Mono March 9, 2019

BD McClay writes a terrific, gripping piece:

In a collection of papers published in 1966, Erwin Straus, a psychiatrist and phenomenologist, examined the ways in which human beings are defined by their ability to stand upright. A person who cannot stand upright, Straus wrote, “depends, for his survival, completely on the aid of others. Without their help, he is doomed to die.”12 But the upright posture and the struggle against gravity that it requires also infuse human life with “an inescapable ambivalence.”13

Standing upright separates us from other human beings, because “the strict upright posture expresses austerity, inaccessibility, decisiveness, domination, majesty, mercilessness, or unapproachable remoteness.”14 Companionable activities often involve reclining or literally inclining toward each other, breaking the harsh vertical stance. People, in short, aren’t built for one another. They are built to stand upright and alone. If we need each other, it is because in one way or another we are a kind of physical failure. And if we incline toward each other, it is against our own physiology.

Such an image of the human person—defiantly constructed against the crushing force of gravity, independent and self-sufficient—is immediately and viscerally attractive. As the virus reminds us, however, the sense of integrity that standing up might instill is not entirely trustworthy. Boundaries are real from a distance, but dissolve as we approach them. Things are themselves and nothing else, yet they are also porous in ways that can disturb us and our sense of identity. Even the boundary between what is alive and what is not is trickier than we think.

One evening, as I took my ibuprofen, I began to choke. I threw up all the water I’d managed to drink, but the pill wouldn’t budge. The audiobook I was trying to listen to, a mediocre memoir, was playing; the author had just discovered that her father’s apparently accidental death was actually a murder. I thought to myself: Well, I refuse to have this be the last book I read. This didn’t help. Nor did pointing out to myself that “Do you ever worry about choking to death alone in your apartment?” is actually a joke from the first season of 30 Rock. The pill didn’t budge, and I couldn’t breathe, and I realized this was it. I was going to die.

I stopped joking and began to pray. I did not ask to go on living, but if I was going to die that was how I wanted to go out. Then I finally coughed up the pill. It took me a few minutes before I believed it. And then, because I had thrown up all over my bedding and was too weak to do anything about it, I had to text my roommate and ask her to come back from her evening out to do my laundry.

Which she did, while I, weak and more than a little hysterical, slumped uselessly on the couch. “How miserable is the body that depends on a body,” Christ says in The Gospel of Thomas, “and how miserable is the soul that depends on these two.”15 Erwin Straus would no doubt agree.


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