Yes, ladies and gents – it’s true. I have lice again. Here I sit with mayonnaise dripping from my head swathed in plastic wrap – once again quarantined. “It looks like there’s a Big Tent Revival going on in your hair,” my classmate Holly waxed eloquent about the number of nits on my head the first time she combed through it. “I think I can see Jonathan Edwards preaching in there,” she said.
The crowd of impenitent sinners on my head is not quite so big this time, so I’m hoping to get rid of the little pests fairly quickly. There’s absolutely nothing glorious or noble about having lice once, much less having it a second time. I think that’s part of the whole frustration with any kind of inconvenience or pain, be it large or small. There is no sense of purpose about it in the moment. In retrospect, we laugh or feel thankfully relieved, depending on the severity of the situation, and perhaps understand what we were taught through it. But these future feelings have little bearing on the present. In the present, we just feel icky – and selfish, to boot.
I’d like to tell you that I’m bearing up well under my light, momentary affliction, but I really just feel kind of depressed and lonely (not that I’m the only one in this situation – there have been several cases of lice on campus lately). I’m disappointed about not being able to go to a concert tonight and not going to church tomorrow, and I don’t like being quarantined or the fact that I’m susceptible to attack by things I can’t see. And one of the horrid parts about being contagious is that you can’t control it, so you have to keep away from people. It’s not just that people don’t want to touch you – it’s that you don’t want people to touch you. You don’t want to be the cause of their misfortune. When you touch people, you hurt them.
And of course, if you’ve been quarantined, you want to use this time of seclusion well but have little motivation to do so because it is difficult to think outside of yourself and your immediate condition. You have great aspirations about getting ahead on homework, praying ardently, writing to that little old lady, or reading lots of inspiring books. But then you don’t feel like doing much of anything. The day stretches endlessly ahead of you. At least, you think to yourself, at least I’ll write a decent blog post. But then you get to your computer and don’t really feel like typing at all. In fact, all you want to do is feel sorry for yourself and then feel guilty for feeling so sorry because there are loads of other people in the world who are suffering way more than you are. What is, after all, your slight inconvenience for a week or two compared to what horrible things most people endure every day?
The lice reminds me of Corrie and Betsy Ten Boom in a Nazi concentration camp where they suffered from lice and fleas (and a whole host of other things). Corrie could find nothing to be thankful for, but Betsy insisted that they thank God for everything, even the lice and fleas. The two sisters later found out that it was the presence of the lice and fleas that gave them freedom to teach the Bible in their barracks, for the guards would not step into the room.
I don’t mention this story in order to compare my lice with theirs (obviously, my ridiculous little bout with lice pales in comparison to all the Ten Boom sisters had to endure). I bring it up, though, because I think this experience has made me understand a little better what is so hard about…well…hardship. When we see suffering in movies or read about it in literature, we have the advantage of seeing everything through to its conclusion. We may watch a sad movie and even feel to an extent the sadness of the characters therein, but the whole experience is over in two hours. There is resolution, endurance and triumph.
In the present, though, there is little triumph. You don’t feel heroic, you just feel sick and messy. And unless you’re suffering on behalf of someone else, there’s no sense that this is for a much greater purpose. Because you’re in isolation, you don’t have a sense of anything greater than yourself. Life is only about you and there is no one to remind you that you are not the center of the universe.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent his last days mostly in isolation in a Nazi prison, and you can see from the letters he wrote to his loved ones how the seclusion weighed upon him. He had books to read and instruments with which to write, but his lack of companionship was hard to bear. He had spent much of his life writing about the importance of community and his last days were, I think, the proverbial “fleshing out” of those beliefs. He discovered how much he needed human relationships.
For the person in isolation, the days blend together. The person in seclusion has been removed from the world outside and is pressed to forget that there exists a world apart from the four walls of a prison cell. For everyone else, time moves ever forward, but not for her. For her, time has stopped. The noise of her old life is silenced now and the busy nothings of the past seem inconsequential. Everything seems inconsequential. She goes about her daily rhythms as best she can: washing, dressing, sleeping, eating. But her life has been reduced to self-preservation. She exists solely for herself, making sure her physical needs are met.
But humans were meant for more than self-preservation, for more than doings and more doings. Humans were meant for relation; to step outside themselves into something grander and more glorious than their own personal delights or sufferings.