License to ill

Oh for the sick days of yesteryear

In the Jane Austen novel Sense and Sensibility, the passionate and heartbroken young Marianne Dashwood falls ill with a “violent cold,” hovers for days in a feverish limbo, at last gradually makes a turn for the better, and for weeks thereafter is solicitously attended to as a near invalid to be protected from every care and fatigue.

Today, Marianne would be stuffed full of ibuprofen and delivering a TED talk before 24 hours were up.

Because somehow, over the course of the last few decades, the license to take ill has been revoked. The idea of lingering tucked under covers, with ginger ale and toast by the bedside and a novel propped in our hands, bears a whiff of the quaintly nostalgic, like the romance of the telegraph or the bygone pleasures of wearing spats. Calling in sick with a cold these days would be tantamount to declaring yourself a hysterical neurasthenic; get some zinc lozenges and get back to your PowerPoints, Marianne.

Perhaps we can trace the beginning of the end of sick days to the introduction throughout the 1960s of a raft of vaccines against common childhood illnesses. Certainly a gain for public health—no one who remembers them would wax nostalgic for the days of polio and measles and rubella epidemics—nevertheless, you could argue that an unanticipated side-effect was a slow-building cultural sea-change. In the past, “convalescing” meant “you would check out from the grind of everyday life,” says University of Virginia research associate professor of sociology Joseph Davis. You would “allow your body to heal, but it had a sense of being a slow process that you needed to give some time, that you couldn’t really hurry.”

Most people over 50 can recall being laid low by one of those now rare or vanquished contagious ailments, for which, in general, the only treatment was the tincture of time. Roger Lathbury, a professor of English at George Mason University, remembers spending weeks confined to bed with the measles at the end of his sixth-grade year, in the summer of 1957, kept to a darkened room with nothing but the radio for entertainment. Though he couldn’t eat, and he missed the first week of camp, still, Lathbury also remembers the long days in that dimly-lit room as the place “where I learned to love rock and roll.”

“Don’t we turn back with some nostalgia to those sickbed days from childhood?” writes author Sven Birkerts in Lapham’s Quarterly. “Not just because we were cared for, indulged, but also because of how in that widening eye of time the blankets became entire landscapes, and great cloud caravans moved so slowly outside the window.”

Well, not anymore, Sven. Today, time rests for no malady.

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