How to be good at being sick

Sooner or later we all end up sick in bed. I have been laid low by bronchitis for the last week. Luckily I have been reading Seneca on Tim Ferriss's advice. Seneca tells us that "There is room for heroism, I assure you, in bed as anywhere else". Nice idea, but how?

The first step is to heroism is accepting the situation that you are in. Not too many heroes make their names by feeling sorry for themselves and complaining about their lot in life. No, they face the odds squarely and fight with everything they have in them. So instead of asking 'Why me?", rather ask "Why not me?". The other crutch that you need to drop is self blame. If you have been training, working, partying too hard and you get sick, you may well be thinking "if only I hadn't (fill in whatever your vice is)". Even if this is true, doting on it won't help. You are sick now. The only question is what you do next.

Here are 8 things that I discovered while fighting bronchitis for a week:


We generally go too fast. Being sick in bed is a great time to slow down. Take pleasure in all the things that you never really 'have time' to enjoy. These last few days I have found myself noticing the changes in a cup of tea as I drink my way through it. Or the subtle changes of light around the room during the course of the day. Or that the rain has got to a window that it doesn't normally reach.

The joy and fascination that this hidden world holds must be experienced to be believed. But this is only possible when we recalibrate our clocks and slow right down. What better time to do this than when you are sick?


Seneca also advises that we turn our attention to nature. This has the effect of turning your attention outward and away from your snotty nose. When you are sick studying nature often consists of looking out of the bedroom window. Study the trees or plants or sky or clouds outside. Marvel at the wonderful natural world that we live in. Look closely and rejoice at what is given to us without any effort of out own.

If there isn't much to see outside your window, you could copy de Maistre and take a journey around your room. The trick is to really look at every little thing around your room. Try to get past the normal labels that you attach to things. Where you bought it or the fact that it needs cleaning or needs to be put back where it belongs does not tell the whole story. Look at everything in your room a little longer. See if you can connect with the thing itself rather than with the words that we normally slap on it. Therein lies magic.


Seneca tells us that "anything which raises his spirits benefits him physically as well." So apart from doing what is necessary to make your body better, also look after your heart and mind. To me that means good reading (such as Seneca), taking a bath, meditating or writing in my journal.


The age old advice is to make lemonade if life gives you lemons. For examples, I did the reading and initial notes for this post while sick in bed. I have a karate grading coming up in a few weeks. This bout in bed could have been bad news because I am missing some important training sessions. But then I remembered a story about a soldier that spent 5 years in a prisoner of war camp and practiced his golf swing in his mind's eye while he was in solitary confinement. When he was released and returned home, he shot a stellar round on his first outing! So I decided to practice some of the technical karate stuff in bed by visualizing each of the moves in sequence. Here is what my kata is supposed to look like.

Being sick in bed also gave the sort of time to get through most of Nabokov's Lolita. (Click here to read about my reading challenge). I also rediscovered some cool radio stations.


Noticing that the earth does not come off its axis when you don't get out of bed can be both depressing and exhilarating. It can make you feel superfluous, but it can also remind you of how free you really are. If life goes on without you, then the heavy responsibility goes out of much of what we feel we 'have to do'.


While you are sick, you can also make some great discoveries about what you should eat. Seneca tells us: "You may be eating like a sick man, but you'll at last be eating in the way a healthy man should". When you are sick you may discover how little food your body actually needs to function. Could you stick to this diet for a while once you get better? Yesterday I had a slice of toast for breakfast, a can of baked beans in tomato sauce for lunch. Real spartan stuff, heh?


A word of caution. The vast sea of time that illness casts before us can be frightening and it can be tempting to escape to television. Resist this temptation. Don't pass on this incredible opportunity. Dump a few hours into mindless television and you may regret the lost opportunity once you get better. Rather sit out the boredom. Stare it in the eye. As Nietzsche said: If you stare into the abyss, you may find the abyss staring back.


Only partly tongue in cheek, Seneca invites us to excel at being sick: "How much scope there would be for renown if whenever we were sick we had an audience of spectators! Be your own spectator anyway, your own applauding audience."

This is what Morrie Schwartz manages in Tuesdays with Morrie. He was so good at dying that he inspired a generation. The least we could is not drag down people around us by complaining. But could we actually go further and set an example while we are sick? Lift the standard for this game?

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