Words by Willow Defebaugh
We will never reinvent the wheel as long as we’re busy running on it; at a certain point, we need to decide to get off.
“So I’m leaning into failure. I’m wondering about the promises of monsters. I’m wondering about how brokenness can redeem us from the incarceration of wholeness.”
It took two years for COVID-19 to catch up with me. Two years of watching cases and death tolls climb. Two years of tests and masks, of life-saving vaccines and boosters. Two years of quarantines and false freedoms, of survival and holding each other up. Two years of personal and collective transformation, two years of transcribing it. For as calamitous as it came crashing into our lives, it fell silently into mine: a negative test, then a positive one, like a fever you never saw coming on a Sunday afternoon.
For all I have written about the imperative nature of rest and recovery, it might make you laugh to learn that I gave myself one day to recover. I knew better, but I was busy. I have a magazine to finish, stories to edit, emails to return—all of which feel impossibly urgent. And my case was mild: a low fever, fatigue, and congestion. So I pushed all of my meetings to Tuesday and gave myself one day to rest. One day to wrestle with the thing that upended our way of life for two years.
Illness aside, idleness didn’t come easy. Every hour, I found myself resisting the urge to be productive. Eventually, evening fell and exhaustion overcame me. I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling marginally improved, determined to face the day. I threw myself into my work and back-to-back meetings. Before I knew it, it was 5pm, I had hardly eaten and I could feel my fever had returned. Frustrated, I did the only thing there was left to do: I let myself fall apart.
That night, I named and released so many things I’d been holding from the past two years: feelings of grief, shame, and failure. I spoke all of my most monstrous thoughts aloud and I let myself be broken without needing to fix it. I finally slept for nine hours and when I woke, my fever had run its course and I was feeling lighter. That’s the thing about fevers: most of us mistake them for the illness itself. But a fever is actually part of your immune system’s response to infection, a way of fighting it off by raising your temperature. It’s your body trying to heal.
While I felt better, I was still plagued by fatigue, and was no longer resolved to ignore my body’s warnings. I cleared my schedule for the rest of the week and rose to meet the sun. I turned on an episode of the For The Wild podcast I had been meaning to finish, an interview with Dr. Bayo Akomolafe about slowing down even amidst urgency. I listened to him and host Ayana Young discuss how we perpetuate a culture of crisis when we respond to it with the same mentality, and how we must create space for brokenness in order to build something new.
It feels complicated to decry urgency in the context of the climate crisis—which is inarguably urgent—especially as a part of the media, an industry that operates on urgency. And yet, we will never reinvent the wheel as long as we’re busy running on it; at a certain point, we need to decide to get off. That looks like asking ourselves such questions as: what does it mean to be a revolutionary living in urgent times? Is shouting back with the same urgency really the answer? Or is there another way?
I had a teacher who once told me that health is another word for integration—and therefore illness is anything that’s not integrated. I don’t know if I subscribe to that theory, but I do know that in our determination to get back to work, we have yet to integrate many lessons of the last few years. I know that we need to allow ourselves to be sick before we can recover, to give ourselves grace enough to fall down and time enough to heal. I know that we need to let ourselves be broken before we can be whole again.