The Spiritual Lessons Of My Seasonal Flu

Let’s start with the unadulterated truth: I’m a big fat liar

And at this rate, I’ll probably go to my grave a liar. 

But the good news is that I’m a little less of a liar today than I was yesterday. 

From the looks of it, I’m on the other side of the flu that’s been going around. I’m no longer feeling wasted and feverish. My energy is returning. I’m no longer yearning to go back to my default setting: napping on the living room couch. 

Which brings me to reflecting on the oddest dimension of being sick for two weeks: I got really depressed. 

As in: I got suicidal and dark. 

Just to be sure, it’s not like my baseline state is happy-go-lucky; I battle the noon-day demons of dysphoria and depression on a near constant basis. 

But suicidality? 

Not that level of darkness!

I mean what was up with that?

Now I’m sure there’s a whole body of literature on the affect of the flu on mood. I’m sure that some of the over the counter meds that I took may have played some role in screwing with my mood and and my mind. Who knows? Maybe I was a bit dehydrated and had a bit of a fever induced delirium. 

All of that may be true but I prefer to consider a different possibility: I was in a state of spiritual listlessness and that freaked me out. 

You see, I’m a student of Victor Frankl, the psychoanalyst and holocaust survivor who wrote, Man’s Search For Meaning. For me, Frankl’s most important thesis is that Man is in a constant state of searching for the purpose of his existence. Once that purpose is found, Man will invest his or her energies into the service of that purpose. He or she will go through thick and thin in their devotion to it. 

As per the book, I designed and engineered a life around the purpose that I determined was worth the investment of my life’s energies: living in accord to my understanding of what is asked of me as a Jew: to go to shul, to pray, to work, to study Torah, to be a kind and devoted husband and father. 

My brief foray into the land of seasonal flu destroyed a lot of that. There was no way that I was going to shul. Prayer was absentminded mumblings which I hoped to get over with before exhaustion dragged me back under. Study? Who are we kidding? 

Of course I don’t feel guilty about any of that. I’m mostly ‘done’ with the sado-masochistic god of my youth.  My Higher Power is fun and compassionate. He engages with me and I know Him well enough to know that the flu is a good enough reason to let a few missed trips to synagogue and missed days of Talmud study slide. 

This depression, this darkness, this collapse, though, felt much more like something in me. So I sat with it and this is what I came up with: 

in my pursuit for meaning I had lost the value of meaninglessness. 

Let me put it this way: my investment in meaningful life has been in some small measure a way of beating back the lurking shadow of ‘what’s the point?’ Yes; the life I’ve chosen makes sense to me in a logical kind of way. But it also is a kind of distraction from some of the never to be resolved existential questions such as what is the purpose of life, what is death, and when will I die. Like the rest of us religious folk, I’m so busy going to shul and doing mitzvahs I don’t have time to think about the dark side of the story. 

So all this doing and chasing has created a chasm of dread and alienation between me and purposelessness, especially the kind of purposelessness that comes with the flu. There’s nothing like feeling like ess-aych (it’s a thing; I just don’t like writing the word, ‘shit’) to flood me with all of insecurities both both big and small. 

Now my spiritual faith teaches me two things: the first ‘thing’ is that holiness and wholeness are the same thing. If I want to feel holy, which I definitely do, then I must be willing to embrace the whole of me. And that includes the dark, insecure parts of myself. That includes the parts of myself and of existence that frighten me, to brings me to my knees, that wreck me. The blessing of my trip down the flu was to meet that part of myself that in all of my hyperness of mitzvas I was running from. 

The second ‘thing’ that my spiritual faith taught me is that my ego was hiding in all of that religious fervor. 

Let me put it this way: my mother obm had a Toyota Prius Hybrid. For the uninitiated, the car could run off a regular gas engine or off a battery. Now imagine two kinds of energy sources as metaphor for the hybrid human self. Instead of engines though we have a soul and we have an ego. We can be driven by our ego or led by our soul. 

Without going into the whole story of ego and soul, the central idea is that while the soul is seeking the sublime beyond, the ego is seeking to fit into the crowd, to get a leg up, and most importantly, to not die. The soul, as long as it can plumb the endless possibilities of the here and now, is always ready to have a good time. Or to chill. The ego needs an audience and measurable objectives to make it feel at home. 

Now I can be a sweet, devoted fellow and you would almost never know whether the inner propulsion system was my ego or my soul. From your human perspective, Josh goes to shul, Josh studies the Talmud, Josh gives charity and you have no idea what his motivation is. In fact, I’m Josh and I didn’t even know what the source of my motivation was! 

The only way then for me to know my motivation was to deny me the ability to ‘perform’ my religious devotions in the public arena, to put me in a place where no one could see me. Not only could no one clap for me but I couldn’t even clap for myself. 

So in the flu, God, revealed me to me. He showed me that what I thought was pure was anything but pure. He showed me that my devotion was as ego-driven as if I was running for President of the United States. And the good news, heck!, the great news, is that I can still make a course correction. 

And now I’m a little less of a liar. 

And that made the flu totally worth it.