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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Fatigue, the Weight of the Future

In this blog I recount my recent experiences with illness and fatigue.

Omicron, my second Covid-19 infection, has got me thinking about fatigue. Or rather, what fatigue does to your wider network of interactions and relationships, your fundamental attachments to the world. I had an especially bad stretch of it because the Coronavirus came with fevers; because the main trigger factor for my relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) is increased body temperature; and because the predominant and worst symptom of my MS is fatigue.

The last few essays on this blog have consequently been difficult to write. Not because they address painful or especially complex subjects in themselves, but because I wrote them from within a dense mental fog. I wrote them slowly, simply and selected subjects that I hoped would be interesting without needing to challenge myself to untangle any knotty thoughts. They were both pointing blogs, exercises of the need to point to something I consider, sufficiently described, of interest.

With fatigue the main thing to depart from your remit of abilities is the higher order executive thinking needed to go beyond mere pointing. These are those cognitive tools that facilitate your general control over behaviour, an internal overview of those ends to which you apply yourself through inhibition, operational memory and mental flexibility. These then culminate in the ability to problem solve and competently reason, to various extents. What is left is the ability to witness, and to fall back on habit. (It is therefore always a good thing to have robust habits on which to fall back).

Yesterday (February 11th, 2022), I stepped out of that awful mental fog. The state of being fatigued and the state of even just being tired are so constitutively different they are incomparable. An emergent property describes when a difference in mere degree tips over into becoming a difference in fundamental kind. In the philosopher Hegel’s terms, a change in quantity leading to a change in quality.

Crossing that chasm between states that superficially seem to be only distinctions of degree, means that it is hard to fully recollect what being in the fog is like once it has receded. I have my journal accounts, but as they are beset by the limiting condition they attempt to render, they are full of ellipses and painful attempts to grasp at what is going on. Moreover, as well as the general irritability of reaching after something always beyond my fingertips, these entries are also marked by dramatic lacunae, as I went days without accounting at all, unable to muster the will to do so.

So I am now left only with the vague recollection of dissatisfied, anxious confusion to draw on to describe the experience intimately. Being in that state, I at least feel confident in saying, is most akin to that feeling of trying to summon a distant word that however much you associate your way nearer, remains forever lost. Only with the addition that the word is for some reason vital to you, and that as well as being unable to fathom the word itself you will equally never know why it is even important for you to do so.

It has all made me better appreciate—even relish—my return to relative normality in mental operations. Being able again to spot small errors in my own work, my writing. Being able to fit together a plan for a day that extends beyond the given moment towards the elements that comprise a workable project. And thus being able to project myself meaningfully forward in time, again feeling that sense of hope that comes from participating constructively in the world.

I have written before, in some now long-distant essay, on the difference between fatigue and tiredness. (It was a more literary piece, since I fixated there on the difficulties of communicating fatigue.) It is a difference I somewhat abstractly sketched above too, but I should put it more succinctly and clearly here, insofar as it can be put at all.

Tiredness still allows you to engage forwards in time however much it limits this allowance, but fatigue forecloses that vital sense of a future existing whatsoever. You retain the human awareness that there is indeed a future, but are cruelly unable to conceive it beyond that merest certainty that it simply is, a brute fact about the world much like the past. And like the past the future then comes to have an unbearable weight to it, as something no longer amenable to change. Fatigue is the physical, forced relinquishment of agency.

There is an inherent optimism to no longer being fatigued. The recovery of agency and therefore of hope. And of the ability to once again do more than point to the world. Even if pointing can be a necessary way of temporarily preserving faith, it is never enough to sustain it forever. For that, we must reason and problem solve, we must engage with others in meaningful projects again. I hope you are all able to do so, or will be able shortly.

And as you go about in the world, stay safe, do not contract Covid-19 if you can possibly avoid it, and do not spread the infection if you have unfortunately already contracted it. And while—if— ill, focus on recovery, point to those things about the world that are good, document and witness for later.


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