How to Be Sick (or The Return of the Rest-Cure)

For the past few weeks I've had my head in a little wonderfully-titled book named "How To Be Idle". The first few chapters have turned out to a be a must-read: a beautifully written eulogy to downtime and rest, an ode to the resurrection of long lunches and afternoon naps, and a call to the end of the current societal model which tends to value the quantity of work generated instead of its quality.

It has really opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about life, and helped me let go of the subconscious feelings of guilt I tended to experience whenever my waking and working schedule would not fit into the 9-to-5 model - the ultimate modern system for productivity and success - which, as a self-employed and creative worker, rarely does.

This week, I happened to read an exciting chapter on illness (On Being Ill), in which the author, expert idler Tom Hodgkinson, provides a powerful statement in favour of bringing back the days of treating sickness by giving ourselves guilt-free days of the 'rest cure', i.e. "doing as little as possible for as long as possible". He goes on to suggest a minimum of three days, extending to as long as two months for more severe cases.

Now, this idea will have many gasping, shocked by the proposal of such an insane concept, which surely would signify the fall of civilisation as we know it. If you're one of those people, I'm sorry to say that you may well be heavily affected by a severe case of the 9-to-5 syndrome.

You see, Modern Medicine seems to have been designed by employers, keen to keep workers at their seats, popping little coloured pills in order to work through their illness, or at worst to take the least amount of time off possible. In other words, to get us back on our seats in front of our computers, so as not to lose out on the never-ending race for success, resources and achievements.

The book gives the example of the brand Lemsip, which over a decade or so has gone from a wonderfully sensorial experience (mixed with hot water and honey) to a strictly pleasure-free remedy (little pills one can take without the need for water). Why? So that workers can "snaffle a couple while getting dressed or running for the bus", ensuring employees can keep the symptoms at bay long enough to put in the hours they need to keep the world running.

Whether or not that is in fact healthy for them, or even for their colleagues which are then exposed to their germs, is not one we tend to even think about. Pill-popping is now the norm: even becoming the new mantra for modern doctors. But beyond pushing the capitalist agenda, we may struggle to understand the benefit of such practices, especially when science shows us that our bodies are capable of healing themselves, if we give them the space and time to do so.

Most modern-day illnesses are a direct result of our systems being in a state of near-constant stress. Worries about work, money, relationships, terrorism and the latest health scare have replaced the more immediate dangers of predators such as tooth-sabred tigers (unless you live in the deeper parts of Yorkshire). However our bodies' response is still the same: elevated levels of anxiety, tension and stress.

Year upon year of this, and our bodies start to complain, communicating through the only language they know: blockages, weight gain, tightness, insomnia and illness. These so-called inconveniences are actually very natural responses from our bodies: it's their way of communicating to us that something just isn't quite right.

Yet we know - and have for millennia - that the body will heal itself when it is given the space to do so, i.e. when it is able to relax (what Dr Lissa Rankin calls the relaxation response). But how can we relax when we have an endless to-do list, an unshakeable need for more money and bigger houses, and a lifestyle so busy that our feet barely touch the ground? And how can we relax when, even when taking a day off sick, we are made to feel guilty as hell for not pulling our weight to help advance the march of modern civilisation?

The call for the return of the rest-cure to heal illness has other benefits too: it allows us to catch up on much-needed idleness time and to enjoy the sweeter pleasures in life, such as staying in our pyjamas for a whole day, watching our favourite movies back to back and falling asleep with a book in our hands. Doesn't that sound more healing to you than popping a couple of pills and forcing ourselves to work through the "inconvenience"?

So instead of numbing our bodies' messages with heavy doses of supermarket painkillers, wouldn't it be more apt to take the time to really listen to them instead? To slow down, put our feet up, be still for a while? To comfort ourselves, give ourselves some love, some care, some real tenderness?

By allowing ourselves the space to rest, we may even hear what our bodies are tying to whisper to us. By surrendering to the need for stillness, we may gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. We may even return to work more productive, more creative and more fulfilled than before.

Illness and the ensuing rest-cure may be celebrated as a time for re-connection with oneself: a modern-day spiritual experience. And we may finally tap into the real creative potential of our society, instead of creating the stressed-out, unhealthy, zombie-like workers we see today.

Love & Health,

Edward xx