Over New Year’s, I came down with the Omicron. Or as I put it to my wife, civilization as I knew it almost came crashing down around me.
Why are men so bad at being sick? I ask that fully aware that even saying the word “men” is enough these days to get you tossed off a college campus by a mob of tots screaming about how they identify as Chevy Impalas. The fun and flirty battle of the sexes has given way to an assault on the very concept of sex itself. And patriarchal oppressors versus birthing people just doesn’t have that same snappy “Summer Nights” ring to it.
Yet even allowing for the ongoing abolition of gender, the difference between how men and women get sick is one of the few sex distinctions we’re still allowed to notice. Ask any woman about this and she’ll react like you’ve just pointed out the blindingly obvious. The illness distinction is still acceptable probably because it’s gender-bending in its own right. Men are supposed to be the burly hunter-gatherers, but give us a postnasal drip and instantly we turn into a quaking heap of neediness and Champion sweats.
The first thing men do when they get sick is to spend hours obsessing over where it came from. The established science that people tend to fall ill during the winter simply isn’t enough; our case has to be special. Men don’t just have a cold; we’re patient zero for the Andromeda Strain or we were accidentally handed a smallpox blanket at a football game. And even when we do establish the origin, we’re still not quite convinced we’ve got it pegged. Is it really just the flu that the Smiths and all their children and pets came down with? Or is it, perhaps, something else, like, for example, Ebola?
The next thing men do is provide their wives and girlfriends with a constant ticker of updates on their symptoms. Bedridden men are like the Snapchat app: the slightest change triggers an alert. Did our stomach just gurgle? Does our foot suddenly hurt, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that we just stubbed our toe on the way out of the bedroom? Get ready to hear about it like you’re supervising a study for the New England Journal of Medicine.
And then comes the doom and gloom, the cloying fear that Things Will Never Be the Same Again. If a man doesn’t recover from being sick within twenty-four hours, he concludes by default that he never will. One day he’ll be holding his first grandchild while still shivering from the same 100-degree fever. This is especially true in the age of Covid, when a small handful of people really haven’t gotten better — and genuine horror stories about them have proliferated across the internet. And while women are more likely to get Long Covid, surely men are more likely than women to demand that others think they have Long Covid.
In Male World, there’s no such thing as a gradual recovery. Fighting a virus is like building an Ikea table: if we can’t lick it in an afternoon, then there’s something wrong and we’re owed a refund. And it’s here that we arrive at one possible reason for why sick men are wusses: we’re creatures of action. We spend our days scrambling up the corporate ladder or slaying entire herds of deer with a bolt-action rifle or straining our arm to reach for another beer during the two-minute warning. To impede all this, to lay us low, runs contrary to how we’re hardwired.
There’s something to that, though I think there’s another reason at work here too: uncertainty. Men, once they get past their early twenties, let’s-go-pillage-Carthage phase, like things to be routine and ordered. Illness scatters all that, puts us at the mercy of an adversary we can’t defeat with a regularly scheduled oil change or a quick tap of the X button. We hunt for the origin because we hate a mystery; we tick off our symptoms because we’re obsessed with how we’ve changed; and we worry we’ll be permanently sick because nothing scares us more than that our lives as presently arranged might be disrupted forever.
A return to normal — that’s all we want. And given that Americans often vote on just that impulse, it’s not so bad, is it?
Still, we shouldn’t make excuses for sick male hysteria. Because it is all just a bit… pathetic, isn’t it, ladies? The shuffling about and moaning, the low-grade sniffling and you just don’t understand how we feel. And surely you don’t. Your own body might beat you senseless once a month but you can’t even begin to fathom the raw suffering that comes from a runny nose.
Several polls have found that women are more concerned about Covid than men are. Maybe they’re just terrified that their husbands will have to stay home sick. Either way, I’ve got to run. I’m due to go smell the coffeepot, register nothing, and feel sorry for myself.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2022 World edition.
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