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Disease Envy

In Jerome K. Jerome’s novel, Three Men in a Boat, there is a scene in which the narrator peruses a medical text and comes to believe that each set of symptoms he reads about describe his case. After hopping around for a bit, he decides the only rational thing is to approach the matter alphabetically.

“[I] read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid’s knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn’t I got housemaid’s knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid’s knee.”

Our capacity for fear and worry over matters as important and seemingly unpredictable as our own health can be powerful indeed. But the narrator’s digression about housemaid’s knee points to another human foible: the desire to feel singular and important in all things, even by means of connection to something painful or terrible. I’ve thought about this passage a bit in recent weeks, as national alarm bells have been ringing over the new outbreak of the Ebola virus. Something in the breathless, fear-mongering coverage of American case – or hint of one – reminds me of Jerome’s character.

As a nation, we’ve become momentarily obsessed by fear over something that is almost certainly not a realistic threat – Ebola is exceedingly dangerous to someone who contracts it, but it is difficult enough to transmit that a literal handful of patients in the US do not portend a future epidemic here. At the same time, the actual Ebola crisis in West Africa is either being ignored or flattened out into a racist abstraction. Too much of the coverage that events in Sierra Leone and Liberia are receiving is just the usual, colonial-era shorthand. The world’s second-largest continent, home to over a billion people, is portrayed as an undifferentiated mass of famine, war, and disease.

A few of you have asked me about the faith response of Unitarian Universalism in this. Here is my counsel: be guided by our covenantal commitment to one another to, “heed the guidance of reason and the results of science,” and be on guard “against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” Scientists aren’t the only people we should listen to in matters of public policy, but they should be the first people we turn to and rely on in matters of public health. Science is imperfect – because scientists are human, and therefore imperfect – but it has much more of value to say about a humanitarian crisis like this one than do the voices of the media or the political class. If we are not in a position to fly to Monrovia and volunteer our own medical expertise – as I expect most reading this are not – than our best course is to watch carefully and critically, to name the imbalances and inaccuracies in the way this story is being told and retold, and to use whatever powers we may have – the ballot, the pocketbook, our influence among friends and family – to support those working in effected countries to contain the spread of this disease. Most importantly we need to remember that, if we are in the United States, we are not at the center of this story.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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