Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Essays

The Ills That Flesh Is Heir to

What if our weakness were the best part of us?

B.D. McClay

She Never Told Her Love, 1853–1863, by Henry Peach Robinson; Alamy Stock Photo.

There is a need of the flesh which speaks out, and the body tells by its actions of the kindnesses it has experienced.
—Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God

Thus fullness, which has no deficiency but fills up deficiency, is provided to fill a person’s need, so that the person may receive grace. While deficient, the person had no grace, and because of this a diminishing took place where there was no grace. When the diminished part was restored, the person in need was revealed as fullness.
The Gospel of Truth


I began to accept that I was sick, really sick, when I stopped being able to read. I had two books before me, one on sexual renunciation and the body in early Christianity and another on the gnostics, but the words disappeared somewhere between the page and my eyes. “Mani had grown up among the followers of Elchasai, a Judaeo-Christian leader of the second century.” Hmmm. “Mani freed himself…through emphasizing the utter bankruptcy of the body.”11xPeter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005), 197–98. Temperature: 102.7.

In hindsight, I realize the sickness had begun when I found myself feeling tired all the time. Then the fever arrived. Obviously, I had the flu, and if I went to the doctor, he would just tell me to get rest and fluids, which was what I was doing already. But when I kept feeling worse and people began to bother me about it, I gave in. Tests for the flu and strep throat proved negative. Prospective diagnosis: tonsillitis, to be treated with a round of antibiotics.

“What about mononucleosis?” I asked. It was of course not possible for me, a person so neurotic about sharing food or beverages that I physically recoil from drinking from a glass someone else’s lips have already touched, to have mononucleosis. But my mother was convinced I had it, and I knew that if I didn’t ask, she would pester me until I went back for the test.

It couldn’t be mono, said the doctor, pen poised to prescribe a round of antibiotics. He didn’t know anything about my phobia about sharing, but he was confident that mono was out.  Possibly I looked like someone who had not been kissed in a while. 

Privately I agreed with him about the test, but I insisted all the same.

“OK,” he said, “but when I come back with a negative result, I’m going to prescribe you some amoxycillin.”

Ten minutes later he returned with the results. “You called it!” he said cheerfully. His cheer struck me as unwarranted. I did not want to have called it, even though my firmness had saved me from the full-body rash that comes from taking antibiotics when you have mono. This probably was the first and no doubt last time I will ever experience dismay over a man telling me I was right and he was wrong. The doctor wrote me a note to show my employer and admonished me to take care of my spleen. I staggered back home, crawled into bed, and prepared to lose a month of my life.


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“No virus is known to do good,” reads the entry for “Viruses” in Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology. “It has been well said that a virus is ‘a piece of bad news wrapped up in protein.’”22xP.B. Medawar and J.S. Medawar, Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 275. Good or evil, viruses are a bit of a puzzle. Originally thought to be very small and uncooperative kinds of bacteria, the electron microscope revealed them to be something entirely different: genetic material (DNA or RNA) encased, as the dictionary says, in a protein.

On their own, viruses can do nothing. They do not have a metabolism and are not “alive” in any of the ways we think of things as being alive. Inside a living body, however, they hijack their host’s cells, manipulating them in order to replicate themselves. The effects of this reproduction on the host can be as mild as a cold or as deadly as Ebola or Hantavirus. We will put Epstein-Barr, the virus that causes mononucleosis, somewhere in the middle of this range, as it contains more bad news than some.

Like chicken pox and herpes simplex, Epstein-Barr is a member of the herpes virus family; once it gets in your system, it goes on knocking about in there forever. (Not all viruses do this; the flu is eventually purged from your system, for instance.) With chicken pox, this reemergence takes the form of shingles, and with herpes simplex, cold sores. But once Epstein-Barr takes up residence in your lymph nodes, where it can happily wait years before resurfacing, you face the prospect of becoming contagious again or—in the worst-case scenario—developing cancer.3For a general overview of viruses, I’m indebted to Dorothy H. Crawford’s The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2009). Indeed, one book on Epstein-Barr is simply titled…Cancer Virus.

But in the best-case scenario, a person with Epstein-Barr might not even know she had it; most people in fact have Epstein-Barr in some form already and never suffer any ill effects because they were exposed to it in early childhood. Unfortunately, if you don’t already have it, its ubiquity means you are playing Russian roulette every time you encounter another person’s saliva. For instance, my undergraduate thesis advisor, an elderly gentleman, came down with mononucleosis because he had been playing Socrates in a college production of Plato’s Symposium and drank from a communal cup. He subsequently developed one of the cancers associated with Epstein-Barr. He pulled through, but it just goes to show: Constant vigilance is required.

Because so many people have Epstein-Barr, it is also of some interest to the alternative health community. Researching the virus, you find a range of books that associate it with, in particular, thyroid disorders, as well as chronic fatigue syndrome and various other physical woes. Lying on my couch, I skim through one of them: The Epstein-Barr Virus Solution: The Hidden Undiagnosed Epidemic of a Virus Destroying Millions of Lives through Chronic Fatigue, Autoimmune Disorders, and Cancer, by Kasia Kines. In it, she promises to help you out of “the victim mindset”:

Always remember who you are, what your dreams and vision for your life were before and can be in the future when you heal. Do not let EBV and its complications victimize you. At this phase of your life, you need impeccably focused self-care, which is just about the biggest challenge, especially for the multitasking, world-saving women. But I know you can improve on it. We all can, me included! I know you can do it. I know you can heal.44xKasia Kines, The Epstein-Barr Virus Solution: The Hidden Undiagnosed Epidemic of a Virus Destroying Millions of Lives through Chronic Fatigue, Autoimmune Disorders, and Cancer (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2018), Kindle edition, 6.

If there’s one thing that turns me off from books like this, it’s that bootstrapping vocabulary: Don’t be a victim of your disease! But I am not interested in simply dismissing books of this kind.  They speak to a real need and, furthermore, are often expressing an appropriate, or at least understandable, level of skepticism toward the medical consensus.

After all, the idea that Epstein-Barr, or any virus, could cause cancer was considered laughable by the medical community for a long time; that it doesn’t seem to contribute to conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome, because not everyone diagnosed with chronic fatigue tests positive for Epstein-Barr, is therefore hard to immediately credit. And some illnesses have even been understood precisely backward: For a time, the idea that scurvy was caused by some sort of nutritional deficiency was considered disproven. Instead, scurvy was thought to be a form of food poisoning caused by bacteria, a misunderstanding quite plausible at the time but which contributed to many avoidable deaths.55xMaciej Cegłowski, “Scott And Scurvy,” Idle Words (blog), March 6, 2010,

And lots of people get sick—to an incapacitating degree—in ways that don’t seem to admit of diagnosis or even of treatment. Some diseases, such as autoimmune disorders, are not only tricky to diagnose but can develop into new problems entirely. Sufferers of such mystery maladies are told they’re stressed or depressed, even when those explanations are plainly inadequate. In “A Sudden Disease,” the journalist Laura Hillenbrand documents her years of inexplicable illness, which included a consultation with a doctor who diagnosed her (and everybody else, it turns out) with Epstein-Barr and prescribed supplements that do nothing at all. “Without my physicians’ support,” Hillenbrand writes,

it was almost impossible to find support from others. People told me I was lazy and selfish. Someone lamented how unfortunate [my boyfriend] was to have a girlfriend who demanded coddling…. “The best thing my parents ever did for my deadbeat brother,” a former professor of his told him, “was to throw him out.”66xLaura Hillenbrand, “A Sudden Illness,” The New Yorker, July 7, 2003,

Hillenbrand was eventually diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, which, while a legitimate diagnosis, is in some ways as good as saying that you’re simply going to be incapacitated, until one day maybe you won’t be. Many people with debilitating problems are not even this lucky. So why not log on to the world of people whose symptoms match yours, who also struggle with insulting doctors and inadequate treatment, and say you have chronic Lyme or Morgellons?77xFor an overview of the debate over “chronic Lyme,” see Rachel Pearson, “The Challenge of ‘Chronic Lyme,’” NYR Daily, July 25, 2018,, and Michael Specter, “The Lyme Wars,” The New Yorker, July 1, 2013, Maybe the medical consensus that these diseases don’t exist is accurate. But at least your disease has a name, and at least now you can experience solidarity and perhaps even hope.

The Epstein-Barr Solution, like a book on how to beat debt or can-do spirituality or how-I-fixed-my-marriage-and-you-can-too, is peppered with personal testimonials that explain the value of both hard work and the advice offered in the book: “I was more than willing to do whatever [one woman] told me to do after five years of excruciating pain, so I decided to do whatever it took to help myself. If she had answers, I’d do the work!” If you eat better or sleep better or avoid toxins or free radicals or heavy metals, if you work out in precisely the correct way, if you maintain an upbeat attitude and avoid “joy blockers,” if you just exercise more discipline, you can beat your disease.88xKines, The Epstein-Barr Virus Solution, 317, 503.

“Know that you are loved, you are beautiful, you are supported, you are important, you are enough, you have finally been heard, your pain has just been validated (with this book), and you are special,”99xIbid., 151. writes Kines. Anyone who has been sick without explanation for a long time knows how necessary “you have finally been heard” is here. But the self-care industry takes this all a step further, selling people the idea that they’re victims if they admit to themselves that they’re sick and it might not be in their power to get better.

Viruses might be mysterious—not alive, not not alive—but so is the human body, which is why alternative medicine will always be attractive, but also prone to its own misguided certainty. That we don’t know as much as we think we know is a truism that cuts both ways. There is probably at least one person in the world who has genuinely been helped by a juice cleanse.

In my case, at least one thing was not especially mysterious. I contracted Epstein-Barr in the classic fashion—kissing. One can be as cautious as one likes sharing forks and glasses, but it actually does not matter if you kiss the person afterward. This is the kind of thing that does not happen to you if, like the Encratites, an early Christian sect I was reading about just as I fell ill, you renounce all forms of sexuality. However, given the time it takes the virus to incubate in your body, I was a goner before I ever started reading about the Encratites, and their good example was entirely wasted.


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“you want things but you can’t have them,” I wrote in my notebook six days after my diagnosis:

you think “this is what I need but you can’t have it—you’re thirsty but water doesn’t help. hungry but the thought of any given food nauseates you.…

everything that was simple is now impossible

At this point, the fatigue was still there, and so was the fever. My chills were severe, but I also sweated ceaselessly. I took ibuprofen to try to manage my fevers and the full body aches that came with them, but it didn’t seem to do much. Even looking at my computer screen for a few seconds gave me debilitating headaches. I couldn’t hold a book, let alone read one, and was so weak that even sitting up was often beyond me. This would have been a problem because it made it so hard to drink water, except that drinking water was also impossible because my tonsils had swollen so much that swallowing was unbearable.

This sore throat, along with the overwhelming fatigue, is one of mononucleosis’s distinguishing features. In a long thread on eHealthForum titled Sore Sore Sore Throat, in which mononucleosis patients past and present gather to commiserate, one sufferer writes that “each swallow is a lifetime of pain and sorrow,” a description that would have made me laugh with recognition if the thought of laughing had not been a little frightening.1010xThroatmaster, Sore Sore Sore Throat (blog), eHealthForum, February 12, 2011, When I swallowed, the pain was so intense that my whole body flinched. and the pain ripped not only through my throat but, impossibly, through my ears. I began to spit into a cup just to stave this off for as long as possible. (“It is truly a wondrous disease,” another forum participant wrote, “and has turned me into a pathetic shell of a human being.”)1111xPleaseGodMakeItStop, Sore Sore Sore Throat, (blog), eHealthForum, November 12, 2010,

Plugging my ears made them hurt less, so when I had to drink water, I would take a careful sip, put down the water bottle, plug my ears, and tentatively swallow, a laborious process that was still extremely painful. Frustrated by my inability to swallow anything, I forced myself to try to eat solid food, reasoning that it couldn’t be worse than water. It tasted so good I almost cried, and awoke a raging hunger inside me, but the experience turned into a nightmare the instant I tried to swallow.

In a collection of papers published in 1966, Erwin Straus, a psychiatrist and phenomenologist, examined the ways in which human beings are defined by their ability to stand upright. A person who cannot stand upright, Straus wrote, “depends, for his survival, completely on the aid of others. Without their help, he is doomed to die.”1212xErwin W. Straus, “The Upright Posture,” in Phenomenological Psychology (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1966), 139. But the upright posture and the struggle against gravity that it requires also infuse human life with “an inescapable ambivalence.”1313xIbid., 143.

Standing upright separates us from other human beings, because “the strict upright posture expresses austerity, inaccessibility, decisiveness, domination, majesty, mercilessness, or unapproachable remoteness.”1414xIbid., 145. Companionable activities often involve reclining or literally inclining toward each other, breaking the harsh vertical stance. People, in short, aren’t built for one another. They are built to stand upright and alone. If we need each other, it is because in one way or another we are a kind of physical failure. And if we incline toward each other, it is against our own physiology.

Such an image of the human person—defiantly constructed against the crushing force of gravity, independent and self-sufficient—is immediately and viscerally attractive. As the virus reminds us, however, the sense of integrity that standing up might instill is not entirely trustworthy. Boundaries are real from a distance, but dissolve as we approach them. Things are themselves and nothing else, yet they are also porous in ways that can disturb us and our sense of identity. Even the boundary between what is alive and what is not is trickier than we think.

One evening, as I took my ibuprofen, I began to choke. I threw up all the water I’d managed to drink, but the pill wouldn’t budge. The audiobook I was trying to listen to, a mediocre memoir, was playing; the author had just discovered that her father’s apparently accidental death was actually a murder. I thought to myself: Well, I refuse to have this be the last book I read. This didn’t help. Nor did pointing out to myself that “Do you ever worry about choking to death alone in your apartment?” is actually a joke from the first season of 30 Rock. The pill didn’t budge, and I couldn’t breathe, and I realized this was it. I was going to die.

I stopped joking and began to pray. I did not ask to go on living, but if I was going to die that was how I wanted to go out. Then I finally coughed up the pill. It took me a few minutes before I believed it. And then, because I had thrown up all over my bedding and was too weak to do anything about it, I had to text my roommate and ask her to come back from her evening out to do my laundry.

Which she did, while I, weak and more than a little hysterical, slumped uselessly on the couch. “How miserable is the body that depends on a body,” Christ says in The Gospel of Thomas, “and how miserable is the soul that depends on these two.”15Marvin W. Meyer and James M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts Complete in One Volume (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), Kindle edition, 150. Erwin Straus would no doubt agree.


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That the world is full of malicious little undead particles that seek only to colonize you and reproduce themselves—on top of the toxins and heavy metals and electromagnetic fields and negative ions and free radicals and gluten you already have to be watching out for—would have made perfect sense to Valentinus, an early Christian teacher whom we’d now call a gnostic.16In addition to The Body and Society, the following texts inform my understanding of Valentinus: Ismo Dunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism: Myth, Lifestyle, and Society in the School of Valentinus (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008); Michael Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005); and, finally, Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York, NY: Random House, 2004). Valentinus, writes Peter Brown in The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, taught that

the human soul was peopled by a host of unruly spirits, of pneumata. These were incomplete, needy creatures, who used the person to see their own fulfillment, in the manner of a permanent, half-conscious state of possession.… [They] bound the soul ever more closely to the flesh.1717xBrown, The Body and Society, 116–17.

Not a virus…but, perhaps, not not a virus. (Well, really—not a virus.)

Gnostic is an umbrella term for a variety of early Christian sects, and its general usefulness has been subject to debate. It was applied to these various groups by their enemies—adherents to what we now call “orthodox” Christianity, but which I will refer to, for the sake of neutrality, as institutional Christianity. The discovery, in 1945, of several hitherto unknown gnostic texts in the Egyptian desert at Nag Hammadi has only continued to complicate this rather thorny word. Certain beliefs might seem to unite the schools we think of as “gnostic,” but, as Michael Williams has pointed out, to a certain extent scholars find what they are looking for.1818xWilliams, Rethinking “Gnosticism.” For the purposes of the present essay, I will restrict myself to Valentinian texts unless otherwise noted. However, I will use the term gnostic for them since this is common usage.

One such common teaching is the belief in gnosis, or private knowledge. There were certain true teachings fit only for the spiritual elite, which were cleverly disguised from the many. But gnosis was not simply the passing on of secret teachings—it was an ongoing process, sustained by the continual initiation of the mature into the elite.

Another such teaching is that the world as we know it is, at worst, outright evil. At best, as The Gospel of Philip puts it, “the world came into being through a mistake.”1919xMeyer and Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, 179. The true God sits somewhere inaccessible in the realm of pure spirit. This world is built by a demiurge, a being identified with the God of the Israelites.

While in some myths the demiurge is an evil figure, he is not in the Valentinian system: He is an “intermediate” figure, a copy of the true God who mirrors God’s goodness while remaining inferior.2020xEhrman, Lost Christianities, 131. The demiurge, however, does not create the world. Rather, when Wisdom attempts to understand God, sometimes out of excess desire, either Wisdom’s agony at her inability to do this or her anger at being thwarted creates matter. However, God breathed spirit into humanity, or at least some of it, and so spiritual beings are trapped on this earth, longing to come home.

Unlike the Encratites, Valentinians were not expected to practice celibacy or abstain from particular foods. Married couples, for instance, were not necessarily required to refrain from intercourse. Sexual desire was not neutral. Like other desires, it pulled the soul toward the flesh; in The Gospel of Philip a consummated marriage is referred to as “defiled.”2121xMeyer and Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, 183.

But the physical world was so tainted that even physical abstention, if not accompanied by the correct spiritual orientation, could have no spiritual value. While one writer from the Valentinian school notes that “those who are not yet able to keep the true fast may have a reminder of it from the external fast,” the true fast is spiritual: “abstinence from everything evil.”2222x“Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora,” Gnostic Society Library, accessed December 5, 2018, Nothing was required of the body; an internal state of indifference was what was needed.

Thus most, if not all, gnostics denied that Christ had been resurrected in the flesh. Some maintained that the Romans crucified a simulacrum of Christ, and Jesus was resurrected as a spirit. Some indeed denied that Jesus existed in a bodily fashion at all; rather, he was a spiritual being who appeared as a physical being without ever being one. If we resembled Christ or could be helped by him, in short, it was precisely to the degree that we weren’t fleshly.

Gnostics were, for instance, accused by their Christian peers of dodging martyrdom and eating meat sacrificed to idols. Much like the accusations of rampant promiscuity, these charges should be taken with a grain of salt.2323xDunderberg, Beyond Gnosticism, 137–38. However, unlike promiscuity—which requires a bit of effort—not to mention the more extreme stories of ritual abortions followed by cannibalism, these complaints do make sense if they spring from an ethos in which you cannot be brought closer to God through your body. To put up resistance at these points would be to do precisely the wrong thing.

The appeal of all of this strikes me as intuitive, even if I myself do not feel it. It provides a spiritual life without being too restrictive; furthermore, there is the pleasure, not to be underrated, of belonging to an exclusive club for the intelligent and mature.

Still, a modern reader is in some ways inclined to scoff at hatred of the body. It is profitable, if one falls into this stance, to reckon with the degree to which bodily life in the second century was much harder than one’s own today. The Encratites represented the horror of the body through the girl who goes from being a virgin to a bride condemned to childbearing. The bride in this scenario is not merely and continually reduced to and valued only for her body; she is also undergoing great physical suffering and bodily change, and, in each childbirth, is risking death. That the world existed not to be redeemed but rather to be escaped from was simply, obviously the case.


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The ways in which our bodies are and are not self-contained were, for those Christians who held to a belief in fleshly resurrection, a problem. Much thought was dedicated in the early church to what might happen to one’s nail and hair clippings. The greatest puzzle of all was what might happen to those people who were unfortunate enough to fall prey to wild beasts or, worse yet, cannibals. Having been digested and incorporated into another person, where now did they belong?2424xCaroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1995), 41.

These questions, however, can affect us in more mundane ways than being dined upon by cannibals. While you are you, and I am me, the line where one of us stops and the other begins is not as clear as either of us would like. Any reasonable person knows she is not entirely in control of her life, but she probably underestimates the degree to which this is the case. One might know, for instance, that kissing makes one vulnerable to certain diseases. But so does breathing, which, unlike kissing, is not an optional activity. Whenever we undertake a whole host of mundane activities, we are becoming vulnerable to the bodies of other people.

Such vulnerabilities can have desired results: pregnancy, for example, the supreme example of boundary blurring in the human body. It also can mean a cold, smallpox, herpes, or the Spanish flu. There is no vulnerability that does not entail vulnerability to harm.

So the sick body is not just a needy and dependent body, unable to help itself. It’s also a dangerous body. In an epidemic, the degree to which human beings are vulnerable to and dependent on one another—not only people they don’t know, but people they never will—is revealed. And people, confronted with their own fragility, do not usually rise to the occasion.

Books on lifestyle and health tap into our fear of our own frailty. Their theme is self-protection: how to shield yourself and those you love from the gunk of the world. And there is so much gunk in the world. “Your shoes have been places,” warns Kasia Kines, before launching into a truly terrifying list of everything your shoes can possibly do to you:

Did you know that chemicals you bring indoors on your shoes may end up in your body? How about your children crawling on the floor on all fours and then putting their fingers in their mouths? Your companion animals? How about forced air that recirculates those toxins, so you breathe them in later? Did you know that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are part of the coal tar sealant used to seal pavements, parking lots, and driveways all over the US, cause cancer?2525xKines, The Epstein-Barr Virus Solution, 160.

Why do I even leave my house? is the first question this prompts, followed by My dog is probably carrying one hundred thousand wicked little chemicals, followed by I live in an apartment building and everybody in this place is just a crawling filthy toxin vector that’s going to kill me, followed by not to mention the mice. Stepping outside or riding public transportation or just checking out a library book with some suspicious stains on it only reminds you that other people are here, shedding their disgusting detritus every which way, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.

For the most part, we inhabit a gnostic universe that does not permit of a gnostic answer. The grand Valentinian framework is gone, leaving us only with a world that is clearly malicious and evil, threatening at every turn. No spiritual ascent remains. But to fight matter with matter, or even with positive thinking, is to try to beat the demiurge with the demiurge’s tools. This world is a mistake. Nothing can ever make it less of one.


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When you have mononucleosis, you can’t do anything. Your world reduces itself to the suffering inflicted by the illness itself. You feel bad, you feel slightly less bad, you feel worse. You become a kind of connoisseur of all the varying kinds of bad you can feel, which is boring even to you.

But you cannot feed yourself or get out of bed. You cannot walk your dog, much less go outside. You are reduced to living parasitically on all of your friends, who can do these things for you. The man who gave you mononucleosis reads to you and brings you watermelon, one of the few things you can eat, comforts you after your choking episode, and takes you to the doctor for steroids. The steroids shrink your tonsils, and just like that you can eat again; all of your suffering until that point was not only treatable but, indeed, completely pointless. However, you still can’t do anything.

Even after the fever and the sore throat are gone, physical weakness remains much longer than seems reasonably possible. A month later, you still have to feel along the wall when you walk down a hallway.  When talking to people, you constantly find that you have to say you need to sit down. Standing upright is too much. You look fine. You feel fine. Then you try to do anything, and are no longer fine.

To be sick is to experience desire at a high pitch and to have that desire almost entirely frustrated. The person who cannot swallow has never wanted water in the way she now wants water. But water, even if swallowed at great cost, cannot satisfy this desire. You are simply too thirsty, and what you can manage to swallow is not nearly enough.

Though the sick body seems, to me, to be characterized by its desire, the healthy body in fact experiences very few satisfied desires. Particularly delicious food is vividly present for one second and a memory the next, but to go on eating it is to dull the ability to recognize its taste at all, and possibly to risk physical discomfort. A longing for companionship is rarely satisfied by even the most cherished friend. To have children is to begin, almost immediately, to lose your children.

More prosaically, to kiss instills the desire to kiss. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, one lover says to the other,

when you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that

Longing, not precisely for stasis, but to fully inhabit a moment in a way that time will not allow, informs our lives. This is the case not only with erotic longing, except in the vague sense that all longing can be classified as erotic; it can apply to any experience. When we’re healthy, we don’t notice the degree to which our everyday desires are unfulfilled, because there are so many of them, and they can be realized enough. It is only when we are sick and desire only a few quite concrete things we cannot have that we truly notice our desires.

To the sick and weakened person, gnosticism offers an escape. Whatever suffers is not you; while bodily suffering doesn’t mean very much, any wedge driven between the identification of your self with your flesh is no doubt helpful. Physical life is shot through with separation and dysfunction because it was born of those things. You, creature of need, driven by desire, are trapped by this quite literally misbegotten world. But if you can master yourself, the realm of pure spirit is a world without differentiation or pain, and, most importantly, without desire.

For modern-day gnostics, or at least the gnostic-adjacent, one appeal of gnosis is its simplicity: Look inside yourself. Elaine Pagels, who has done more than perhaps any other scholar to restore the image of the gnostics in the popular imagination, writes in Beyond Belief that reading texts from Nag Hammadi such as The Gospel of Thomas taught her that “the impulse to seek God overflows the banks of a single tradition.”2626xElaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York, NY: Random House, 2004), 76. Find the light within. Yet the cost for not discovering the light within is also real. Valentinus’s system is not without stakes.

Gnosis requires initiation, and is thus in some ways inherently social. But a gnostic’s relationship to other people, including other gnostics, is more ambiguous. Whatever it means to believe in a mistaken world, it does not translate straightforwardly into a moral code. In The Gospel of Truth, a text that is considered by a few to be by Valentinus himself, the author urges his readers to

steady the feet of those who stumble and extend your hands to the sick. Feed the hungry and give rest to the weary. Awaken those who wish to arise and rouse those who sleep, for you embody vigorous understanding. If what is strong acts like this, it becomes even stronger.2727xMeyer and Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, 43.

This exhortation clearly operates on two levels. There’s the literal level: Help the needy. And it’s also spiritual advice: Spiritual beings should open the eyes of those whose eyes can be opened. People will grow on the path of perfection, though they will start in different places and some may have further to go.

But not every eye can be opened. Some people, The Gospel of Truth also says, are essentially material. Properly speaking, they do not exist at all; like the world, they are illusory. Though the author of The Gospel of Truth cautions that “I am not saying that those who have not yet come to be are nothing”—they might become something—he finishes that thought by proclaiming that “whatever has no root has no fruit, and although thinking, ‘I have come into being,’ it will perish by itself. So whatever does not exist will never exist.”2828xIbid., 41.

Of course, believing that some part of humankind is headed for something unpleasant—hell, for instance—has not stopped people from behaving altruistically, caring for the weak, or in other ways giving priority to the good of others. We simply do not know what a society in which Valentinus and his followers became dominant would look like. If the moral implications of a Valentinian system aren’t clear, then they are just that: not something we can easily predict.

Still, autonomy requires an elite; it’s why strength seeks to become stronger. If salvation requires only looking within and gaining true knowledge, it’s self-evident that most people are not capable of gnosis, just as most people are not capable of being philosophers, mathematicians, or brain surgeons. And if these people never properly exist, this is not something that should keep anyone up at night, any more than you should wonder what happens to the people in the television when you switch it off.


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The other option on the table for early Christians was that the body was, in some sense, an eternal matter. It was redeemed and redeemable, to be resurrected on the last day. Christ is linked to us through the body: Human flesh and blood is of the same kind as Christ’s, and human suffering is Christ’s. For these early Christians, the body was to be disciplined, but it was not disposable. The extreme ascetism practiced by the Desert Fathers was a way of trying to perfect the body before death.

Christ’s body, furthermore, was never absent. He was physically present in the Eucharist, not merely symbolically or spiritually present. Indeed, Christ was not only present, but equally present in each fragment of the consecrated bread. Similarly, the bodies of holy people were considered in some important way to retain those people, even after death, but each relic contained, or granted access to, the whole saint, not simply a finger. Physical things could contain and give blessedness.

In the Western medieval church, ascetic practices would become particularly, though not exclusively, important to women, who were identified with matter and with flesh (men providing reason and form).  Asceticism would also shift slightly in meaning, becoming a kind of reclamation of sensuality rather than a repudiation of it. As Caroline Walker Bynum writes in Holy Feast and Holy Fast,

God, like woman, fed his children from his own body, and if God did not make his children from his own flesh, he saved them by taking for himself a body from their humanity. Thus women found it very easy to identify with a deity whose flesh, like theirs, was food.2929xCaroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1988), 275.

This intense focus on the body provided women with access to God while also turning them into marked members of their communities. The female body needed to be contained and, at times, excluded. In fact, women’s bodies were one of the preoccupations of early arguments about the resurrection: If human flesh existed in paradise, would we have gender?3030xBynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 6, 90–91, 97–100.

Gender, much like the fingernails, hair, and cannibals mentioned previously, was one of many problems the bodily resurrection raised. What age would the resurrected body be? Would forms of social hierarchy exist such as we knew on earth, or would they be erased altogether? The resurrected Christ, in the Gospel of John, still bears his wounds. Would we, therefore, retain our scars even in our perfected bodies? What, in short, did it mean to remain yourself and yet to be perfected and changed?

Gregory of Nyssa, one of the early Church Fathers who wrestled with these problems, viewed this question in part through the life and death of his sister, Macrina.3131xHere I follow Bynum’s discussion of Gregory of Nyssa in The Resurrection of the Body. When alive, Macrina had refused to have a tumor operated on out of modesty and instead asked her mother to pray for her, which had caused the tumor to vanish, leaving only a scar. After Macrina’s death, her body seemed in some sense transfigured: “Rays of light seemed to shine out from her beauty,” Gregory tells us. But the scar remained, “a reminder…of God’s visitation, as an impetus and cause for constant thanksgiving to God.”3232x“The Life of Saint Macrina,” Monastic Matrix, accessed December 5, 2018,

Such a story tells us that we, as individuals, matter to God and will continue to matter. But when the time comes to bury Macrina in the family tomb, the tone changes. Gregory is terrified of having to behold the bodies of his parents, “decomposed and disintegrated and changed into a hideous, repulsive formlessness.”3333xIbid. And, indeed, he arranges things in such a manner that he does not have to.

These are the difficulties one encounters if the body is not going to be left behind. The scar is a sign of suffering and grace, proclaiming that this body, and this person, will be resurrected, and that the experiences had in this earthly life will also, in some strange sense, be retained and redeemed even if we cannot quite grasp how this will play out, or what it could even look like. Many Christians maintained that the martyrs would be resurrected with bodies intact, yet still bearing their scars. Yet the only thing we know about what happens to us after death is the corruption of our bodies, not the perfection thereof. The putrefied body admits nothing, not even its own onetime boundaries; it simply is nothing, represents nothing, and remembers nothing.

But belief in the resurrection of the individual body, for all the difficulties it imposed upon those who believed in it, persisted. The eternality of the body was the final repudiation of death. But if the body was so important that it had to be resurrected in its particularity, then perhaps it no longer made sense to view it as a prison that had to be ruthlessly disciplined in preparation for heaven, as it was for some members of the early church.

So alongside the body as prison, another idea of the body began to emerge, one in which the body became a kind of outpouring of the soul. To speak of a body without a soul, or a soul without a body, was to talk nonsense. Each was incomplete without the other. Indeed, there is no “the body.” There is my body.3434xArthur W Frank, At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 12–13. There is me. This relationship, my soul to my body, my body to my soul, is, in its essence, a romance.


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Along with the fatigue, one symptom I experienced of the onset of illness was increasingly vivid dreams, which continued throughout the sickness itself. Most of these dreams were nightmares, but one left me feeling comforted. In this dream, I’m in my kitchen, well again, and open a cabinet, in which I find something I’ve lost. It’s a real thing, something I’ve been looking for in my waking life—a present from a friend, who, coincidentally, also walks my dog while I’m sick and even shows up unexpectedly after I throw up all over my bed to help clean up.

But though I know it’s the same object, it’s been physically transformed. The materials have changed. The real present is wooden, but this one is made of pale pink pearls and glows slightly. I am so overjoyed to find it again that I pick it up and bury my face in it.

What’s the argument for loving this world and the people in it? Certainly, the evidence does not point us in that direction. It’s trivially easy to tick off everything that’s wrong with us: viruses, for one. And to say that gnosis is a move away from love is not to argue against it, merely to point out a consequence. Isn’t love sort of an embarrassing word, anyway? What would it mean, anyway, loving the world?

Yet I do love this world. Even the viruses. After all, I know so much about them now. (For instance: Viruses help transmit little bits and pieces of genetic code, and “8 percent of our human genome is viral DNA acquired by infection, by retroviruses.”)3535x“Understanding Horizontal Gene Transfer in ‘The Tangled Tree,’”, August 11, 2018,

Fragility is not a condition to which most of us aspire. It’s pleasant to help, or it can be; unpleasant, extremely, to need help. Declaring the world a mistake expresses a tragic aspect of reality, grasping for control an attempt at escape. But in abundance and devastation, what remains is our dependence on each other. So it is impossible for me not to think that our weakness isn’t, in the end, the best part of us: our capacity for desire, our ability to give and receive love, to heal and to harm. We can be afraid of each other or we can love each other. These are, in the end, our choices.

Dreams may not mean anything. But if my dream about the rediscovered gift does, maybe all it means is that the things you need you will be given many times. Indeed, you’ll never reach the point where you don’t need to be given them. You will never stop being weak or a creature of desire or demanding care and love. You will ask and ask and ask.

Yet instead of wearing out, giving less and less every time, these gifts will be enriched, made more beautiful, every time you receive them, in forms more beautiful than you can imagine. Because love is meant to be given, and in the giving, deepens and replenishes itself. And whatever else might be true about this world, it is built, from its foundations on up, out of love, which desires even as it fulfills, which yearns and which comforts, and in which all things meet, are remembered, and are reconciled; and are eventually, eternally, assuredly redeemed.