Sun Tzu: The Art of Sickness
I. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is one of the most widely quoted books ever written. The collective guidance of the ancient Chinese general is still the preeminent source on military strategy, even though it was composed sometime around the 6th Century B.C. In his time warlords both fierce and foolish fought each other for dominance over China. Smart generals like Sun Tzu were a valuable commodity.
As time passed fewer people were directly involved in warfare. There was more to do than farm and fight, but people still felt the need to feel connected to their violent roots. That is why war simulation games are so popular and recreational big-game hunters speak in tactical language. For better or worse, the need to take out an enemy and complete strategic objectives is a powerful motivator.
For this reason The Art of War has been applied to much more than just warfare. Sun Tzu’s sage advice has been used to teach strategies for everything from cutthroat business practices to cutthroat potty training techniques.
There are few things in life that are as difficult as getting sick. Sure, there are the whoppers, the fatal illnesses that simultaneously cause prolonged pain and tragically cut life short. But even minor sickness like a sore throat or a stuffy nose can be a horrible ordeal. It’s sort of like comparing a sword gash to a paper cut. One is definitely worse, but that doesn’t make the other one any better.
Getting through even minor sickness requires cunning and strategy. Like all things that require cunning and/or strategy, Sun Tzu can help.
II. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu teaches that all warfare is based on deception.
The enemy may try to appear weak, or you may try to appear strong. Archers may be dressed as spearmen, horses can be hidden away, and lions can be painted with stripes to look like harmless tigers.
The best way to counteract deception is through reconnaissance. Sun Tzu strongly recommends the use of scouts, spies, and other agents to gather as much information about the enemy as possible. The more you know, the more difficult it is to be deceived.
This also applies to sickness. Many illnesses have common symptoms. It can be a fatal mistake to assume you have one thing when you actually have another. What you think is just a cold can easily be pneumonia in disguise. Then again, just because your nose is a bit drippy or your head kind of hurts doesn’t mean you should start getting your affairs in order.
We used to be able to shrink people down and send them in as little spies against the sickness. Unfortunately, Ms. Frizzle retired and sold her magic school bus to a hippie, so we are forced to employ other methods of reconnaissance.
Research can be a sick person’s best friend. A book or a website can teach you all about the difference between yellow snot and green snot, how to tell an ache from a pain, and what kinds of over-the-counter medication are available in your local area. Eventually, though, you’re going to want to pay for your intelligence. There is just no substitute for a professionally trained spy, or in this case, doctor.
III. There are many reasons sick people resist seeing a physician. It’s expensive, and can sometimes be as painful as the sickness itself. If put on the spot, I might choose to cough for a year rather than spend one minute in the terrible limbo that is the waiting room.
The main reason sick people don’t go to the doctor, though, is because they simply don’t think they need to. They are tough. They don’t need any help with a puny sickness. But just as Sun Tzu says we should know our enemy, so too does he say we should know ourselves.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
We all know the things sick people need. Rest, warmth, lots of fluids, and time can defeat just about any minor illness when used properly. Sometimes the amount of these things we need is not the same as how much we feel like we need. But when you know that you are sick, and you accept it, then you will not be fooled into a prolonged illness.
Drink water, even if you’re not thirsty, because you know you are sick. Sleep, even if you’re not sleepy or have other things to do, because you know you are sick. Stay warm, even if you are sweating, because you know you are sick. Be patient, even if you feel better, because you know you are sick. Before long the sickness will rout and you will be better for real.
IV. So you know the nature of your sickness, and you know how to take care of yourself. All future engagements with sore throats and sniffles ought to be in your pocket. This is a great way to feel, and an even better way to lose your next battle. According to Sun Tzu, there are few better roads to defeat than to underestimate your enemy and, sure of victory, rush in without thinking.
“The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat…”
You should enter every battle, and go through every sickness, as if it were your greatest challenge. Life is a precious thing, easy to take away, and even easier to take for granted.
There is no such thing as a common cold. In fact, the word “common” should never be attached to any threat to peace or survival. For a common threat is one that can easily get out of hand.
V. Sun Tzu is one of those historical figures who is used so much he almost loses relevancy. Few of us will do battle in corporate boardrooms or political arenas. But we will all do battle with sickness, and The Art of War can help us win.