Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Solo Report Part 2: Health is a Privilege
When health becomes an identity--a summation of the person standing in front of you--it becomes an easy way to feel superior. Superiority is something we all enjoy, whether we admit it or not. It’s our evolutionary instinct, survival of the fittest. We want to feel that we are somehow doing better than the person next to us.
But the problem with this is we are operating on inaccurate data. As I explained in my last post, health is a combination of factors--many of which we have no control over. Our genetics, stressful circumstances, and socioeconomic standing often have very little to do with the effort we put in. And those able to overcome all of these aspects tend to have a lot of help and plenty of resources along the way. Not always, but most of the time.
People with privilege--the privilege of health, of being male, being white--typically blame those without their advantages for the underprivileged problems. The person burdened with lung cancer was probably asking for it with a pack a day. The obese are all simply overfed and under-exercised by choice, not circumstance of course, even though genetics determines the vast majority of your weight. And those of us without these obstacles, despite what we eat or how much we exercise, get to feel good about ourselves.
But the identity of health often fails. More and more of us are succumbing to cancer. The increasing amount of sugar in everyday food multiples the risk of heart disease and adult-onset diabetes. And when it does fail, we are left scrambling to pick up the pieces of our lives. I know. I’ve seen it happen.
My father was a cop. At 6’7” and nearly 4’ wide at the shoulders, he had most criminals shaking in their boots by the time he reached the car door. He became head of the swat team, got promoted, and kept a rigid workout routine. No one would have guessed when he showed up in the emergency room for what he thought was pneumonia that the doctors would find a five pound tumor wrapped around his heart and lungs.
With his increasing amount of leave to deal with the cancer treatments and the decreasing amount of strength he had to do routine police work, he soon lost his job. Even though, he fought and won against the cancer the first time, everything he had been vanished. The identity as a vast, strong, healthy man who worked for the forces of good diminished with each injection of the poison that would buy him a few more years.
Health is not your identity. When we make it one, we add to our addiction to superiority and reliance upon its fast-fading influence in our lives. Stress management, working out, eating right, and regular visits to the doctor reduce risks, but this kind of vigilance is not readily available to all. So to some extent, yes, health is a choice, but it is mostly a privilege. And it is a privilege that cannot afford to be abused because, as Gawande points out, it’s a privilege that inevitably is revoked for us all.