The Ethics of Illness

When someone close to you is sick with a communicable illness, what do you do? Cold and flu season is rapidly approaching, so it’s a question most of us will likely face at some point soon. The answer depends on the meaning of the word “close.” If close implies merely physical proximity, the problem is a simple one. When you see someone sneezing or sniffling or wheezing, you say “Bless you,“ and you do your best to keep and increase physical distance without seeming outwardly disgusted or rude. If you’re a particularly nice person, you might offer a tissue or a cough drop before moving away.

If, however, the word “close” implies an intimate relationship, the issue is more complicated. When a friend is ill, your obligation and desire to be a good friend runs in direct opposition to your desire to remain healthy. Granted, preparing food for your friend or fetching them water probably will not greatly put you at risk. But what if your friend asks for more? What if she’s in need of comfort? What if she asks for a hug, or asks you to sit side by side with her in her bed and watch Netflix? What if she leans her head on your shoulder and then starts coughing in your face?

The bluntest among us might have no qualms about saying something like, “Dude, you’re sick, can you get off me?”   But this approach risks offending your ill friend. She might label you as inconsiderate or insensitive. She might be upset that you aren’t willing to accommodate her more.

The most diplomatic among us might decide to say, “Hey since you’re sick, would you please aim your coughs the other direction?” And while that line might go over well with some people, our more sensitive friends might still feel hurt. After all, people don’t want to feel like other people are afraid of being close them, even if they do pose some risk to others.

To avoid any possibility of offending our friends, the shiest and least assertive among us might just allow the situation to play out, and later stuff ourselves with orange juice and vitamin C supplements and hope for the best.

This last strategy is the one I usually employ. I thank my mother’s willingness to let me eat dirt as a child for the fact that my immune system if pretty good, and I rarely get sick.   But when I do, I often suspect a certain person of getting me sick, although I’m aware that this culpability is impossible to prove. Additionally, I know that the fault is partially my own since there were steps I could have taken to lessen the chance that that person would get me sick. Even so, I can’t help but resent them a little bit.

Though this resentment is slight and dissipates quickly, it reveals a common pitfall of many relationships, romantic or otherwise. Sometimes, in an attempt to avoid conflict or confrontation, we sweep our concerns under the rug. And although we many have evaded an argument for the time being, the issue does not disappear. To the contrary, it continues to grate on us, until we cannot help but express it. When we do talk about it, we will likely do so at an inappropriate time, and in an overly aggressive manner.

Thus, the situation ends up being worse than it would have had we voiced our concerns initially. And while the popular adage “pick your battles” has some validity, when we find ourselves continuing to think about a particular situation or behavior, it’s usually best to raise the issue, especially when it comes to protecting our health. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves not only sick, but also angry and filled with resentment. And of all the home remedies out there, no one ever said that anger was the best remedy.


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