Does Our Culture Confuse "Healthy" People With "Good" People?

Making bad choices can certainly lead to bad outcomes, but so can making good choices. No matter how hard you work to stay healthy, we are all going to die, says Emily Rapp.

All of us are called to “take charge” of our health, as if health were a wild animal and we, out of sheer smarts and willpower, might tame it. “In a recent study,” we read, this or that berry fights cancer, this blend of fish oils helps the heart pump more efficiently, this pill will make you breathe better if you’re struggling, this other pill will make you feel better if you’re sad, this set of exercises will build bone density, don’t forget to take your calcium, practice yoga to release stress (which causes cancer and heartache, both of which can lead to premature death), and remember to break a sweat at least once a day or do some type of moderate to vigorous exercise a few times a week to help fight heart disease, high blood pressure, and any number of diseases waiting in your body that might kill you. Quit smoking. Drink very little, if at all, especially if you are a woman, as it increases chances of breast cancer and has been linked to infertility.

The intention behind this advice and its subsequent activities is a benign one in many ways. We all know that being healthy feels better than being sick, and helps us enjoy our daily experiences to a greater degree. Health literally improves our lives.

The problem is this: We’re all going to die. If you’re 10 or 90, when you die it’s going to feel premature, no doubt. We cling to our lives because we’re human beings; our lives are who we are. When we die we lose our identity; plus, we’re just dead. And since nobody knows exactly what that eventuality looks like, we’re afraid of it. Just as dying is a natural process, so is being afraid of actually going through that experience of unraveling. Is there such thing as a dignified death? I don’t know, but we’re all headed there, dignified or not.

While I also read articles about magic berries, exercise somewhat fiendishly (although more out of vanity and procrastination, honestly, than any legitimate shout out to my health), and try to eat right, I also know that in some ways, it won’t matter. I might still get hit by a car; I might still get a rare form of cancer, even though I don’t “deserve” it (does anyone?), and have tried to, as all the experts encourage, “take charge” of my health for most of my life, perhaps more so than some because of my disability, which early on schooled me in two lessons; life isn’t fair (a); that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to live it to the fullest extent possible (b).

My experiences with my son Ronan proved the futility of excessive health talk as a way of avoiding thoughts of death: No matter what kinds of organic food I fed him, no matter how “healthy” the childhood environment, he was going to die. His DNA had determined this at the moment of his conception, and there was no fighting Tay-Sachs or surviving it. This often made me feel like a failure, like I had neglected to provide him with “health,” as if one could bestow it on another. My friend Becky, when her daughter Elliott was dying of Tay-Sachs and people would say they’d pray for a cure, would say, “Thanks. But let’s talk about biology.” Like prayer, healthy decisions can’t hurt, but they aren’t going to solve basic problems in the brain. Ronan’s body was doomed, as all of our bodies are eventually, even if we drink juiced kale every day and run marathons.

I’m not advocating that we all eat potato chips and buckets of beer for lunch, sit on the couch, and stop taking our vitamins. My point is that in this culture there’s a rhetoric of “being healthy” that has developed a kind of nasty, smug edge to it, a judgmental warning. If you’re not healthy, well then, beware. You’re headed for cancer and disease and an early death. You weren’t good; you didn’t behave, and somehow you deserve this terrible calamity. Somehow you deserve to die.

I thought of this recently at lunch with two friends who are intimately aware of how disease and illness strike people randomly, without reason, and often when they are healthy. What makes this reality doubly difficult is the “fighting” rhetoric that surrounds illness. “I’m going to fight and beat this cancer,” we hear people saying. It’s a terrific thought, but what about those young, healthy (read here: GOOD) people who develop aggressive cancers at 18, 25, 42, and are unable to fight them because it’s physiologically impossible? Let’s talk about biology. Let’s talk about mortality, the great reality that none of us wants to face.

But face it we will. People who don’t “look after” their health as if it were an errant child don’t deserve to get cancer. Neither do heavy smokers, or people who loathe physical movement. Nobody deserves anything; instead, life happens to all of us, and so does death. Certainly people can make unwise choices, but it doesn’t make them “bad,” although in our current culture, again, if you’re healthy you’re a “good” person, and if you still smoke a pack of cigs a day, you’re “bad.”

Actually, the truth is that people are just people who make choices, full stop. Being healthy should not be fused with the illusion that any act you might take will save you from death, only that such decisions might make your life happier and easier to manage for as long as you’re around on the planet, which, by the way, you cannot control. We talk about “fighting” illness through particular choices, and then, if you get sick, “fighting” that as well. The implication here, amid all the glossy advertisements for health food and organic produce, is that if you are healthy, you will not die.

Again, you will die. This is not a scare tactic. This is not a statement designed to make you tremble, although it probably has that effect. This is reality. If you are alive and reading this, at some point you will be dead. Is it wise to quit smoking? Sure. Is it smart to exercise and eat right? Of course. But none of these activities will save you from getting some funky, complicated, horrible cancer that knocks you down in a matter of months in the prime of your life. This doesn’t make you a bad person who made bad choices, it makes you a human being living on earth, which makes you vulnerable to the chaos that governs and controls all of us, despite our best attempts and most elaborate wishes to the contrary.

The fact of mortality doesn’t need to be a siren call for everyone to start boozing it up and eschewing exercise and acting like maniacs. We know that wellness and health improve our lives, makes us more present to beauty, to love, but it’s not going to save us. To assume so is to believe that we have ultimate control over our bodies, and we do not; or that we can control chaos, and we cannot. Not everything can be fixed.

Now that’s a healthy attitude; or, at the very least, a realistic one.

Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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