The nihilism of illness (8-16-22)

I’ve had Covid for the past eight days, the first six of which were miserable (about a 7 out of 10 in severity). I had a painfully sore throat and I didn’t want to talk to anyone or to do anything.

I met my obligations during this time. I worked from home. I fielded calls. I was helpful. I did some light cleaning. But aside from these commitments, I disengaged from life. I just lay on the floor and closed my eyes and sighed and snorted and moaned.

I had a hard time last week even committing to a movie or a tv show. I’d start watching one and give up on it and try another and another.

One of the cool things about getting sick, sad or depressed, is that it distances you from your life and you get to see your beliefs, your commitments, your hero systems, in a new light. My father was a man of strong ideological commitments, but even he routinely experienced the nihilism of illness. After a strong bout of the flu, he’d feel depressed for days or even weeks.

I think this kind of disengagement from your routine is usually adaptive. You step away from the things you normally believe and do and you get to think a second time about stuff you’d normally take for granted.

It’s a bit like travel. When I was in Australia last year, I noticed that most everyone and every thing I cared about in Los Angeles became less important to me, while people and things in Sydney became more important.

I lived in Australia for a year after high school, and when I returned to Sacramento in the summer of 1985 at age 19, my attachments to things American were diminished. For the first time in six years that fall, I didn’t care about the World Series.

I notice that when Jews move away from their synagogue, even if it is only a block or two, they invariably participate less in that shul. When people stop going to church or synagogue during a pandemic, they don’t return 100% after the threat passes. Instead, many people lose the habit of going to God’s house every week. A fluke interruption in habit often leads to permanent and dramatic changes because big doors swing on small hinges.

Beliefs are a form of abstract thought, so it makes sense that you’d have less abstract thought when exigencies reduce your bandwidth.

Another thing that always accompanies illness for me is a reminder of my vulnerability. One small step and your life can forever change. The more I get to know myself, the more I see my vulnerabilities. The more I get to know others, the more I see their vulnerabilities. I notice when I interview people that no matter how famous they are, they’re always more vulnerable than I anticipate. Every woman I get to know is always more vulnerable than I anticipate. Every boss I have is more vulnerable than I anticipate. The more I interact with others, the more I notice my blind spots.

Claire Khaw comments: “It is interesting that you say being ill made you believe in God less.”

I felt a weakening not a reduction in my beliefs. They ceased being so salient to me. The more I suffered, the less room I had for abstract thought and beliefs are a form of abstract thought. It’s akin to being hungry or thirsty. You have less bandwidth. Beliefs require bandwidth.

Claire: “If being ill were the step before death, would your belief in God be strengthened or weakened if you believed you were about to die?”

I suspect it would strengthen though that might depend on how much pain I was in.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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