The definition here is somewhat different than definitions we have learned about during our training. In fact we really, or at least I do not recall much about the topic of “health”/”healthy” being addressed during training. The focus was on the absence of health or to state it more plainly, disease. Diseases were well defined for the most part by objective criteria. And if and when those objective criteria moved back (WNL) into the normal range and the patient was feeling much better they were said to be on the road to or have returned to “health.”
I remember a lecture in med school in which we were taught that our job as physicians was to get folks back the way they were prior to getting sick. That was our job. That is one perspective. In that relationship with the infirm other we held the power to fix the problem. And get folks back to….? To what? To health? Or to the way things were prior to getting sick? To normal.
And to me that is not the same thing. So how, then, do I define ‘health?” Health here is the ability to work, to love, to play and to think soundly. That means that someone with hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, bipolar disorder, cancer, etc. can be healthy. Whereas someone else without any known ailment and lab results WNL, probably isn’t. It’s not about the criteria we learned in medical school, however poorly defined by the absence of disease. It is about how people experience the living of their lives: their jobs, their families, their friends, their gifts, their purpose, themselves and well being. It is a definition I stole from Ashley Montagu in a book titled, GROWING YOUNG.
His premise is that we aren’t meant to grow into the kinds of adults we become. We are not meant to grow old we are meant to grow young. We are meant to stay in a developmental process throughout the life cycle, staying in touch with the wonderful behavioral characteristics of the child, which helps us stay vital, and yes, young, regardless of our age.
Because we do not stay in touch with those traits, we can slip into a box long before we are dead. So what happened? We learned, we got acculturated on the road to becoming grownups and what we learned allows us to function now as adults in the work-a-day world. Being able to function as normal adults means when stressed we often make a bad situation worse, addictive disorders abound with workaholism rampant, that 50% of marriages end in divorce, financial wealth goes up but happiness doesn’t above $65,000/year, less than half of Americans are happy with their jobs, in families with teenagers when the youngsters have problems their parents are the court of last resort, we are better at competing than cooperating with each other, honesty is not the best policy, we repress how we really think and feel while expressing just what’s safe to say and we learned to be our own worst enemies!
That may be normal but it certainly isn’t healthy!
The irony is that sometimes it isn’t until someone gets sick that they wake up and get healthy. They may have cancer but they see the familiar in a new way and make life decisions that reflect what is actually most important to them. They begin doing what is suspiciously healthy and can even be grateful for their world stopping, status quo breaking diagnoses.
Why wait for cancer or the near death experience to see what we want to start doing that we haven’t risked doing yet? Why wait to stop doing what is unhealthy for us and our relationships as well? And finally, what do we want to keep doing, albeit differently? Open that box. It seems safe but it’s a trap. You may be caught, but look. The door opens from the inside.