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What is Health?

February 18, 2010

by Monica Raymond

Originally written as a response to a survey for the ArtCraftTech conference on health and wealth held in Manhattan in December 2009.

What is health?

Health means being basically alert, functioning, joyous. Having access to the capacities of one’s body. Not doing stuff that will degrade it. A healthy human has found a way of being in the physical world that matches his/her spiritual and emotional needs and aspirations. Not everybody needs to be a karate blackbelt, but the person who needs to be, if they’re healthy, can learn to be. If they’re not healthy, something stops them — ideas of limitation, fear, or the actual deterioration of the body/mind. Health means the organism retains the capacity for learning, some plasticity. A healthy person has the capacity to take in information/input/contact with the world, and to respond and modulate on the basis of that information. And a healthy person is willing and able to work with what they have, to optimize, rather than lamenting some ideal state they lack.

A lot of health is about maintaining a healthy immune system — which means cultivating a fundamental attention to what’s good for one, what makes one feel healthier, and what makes you sick. That means not just noticing, but going towards what enhances your sense of well-being and away from what diminishes it.

A lot of systems look at health as a kind of balance between internal forces — heat and cold, black bile and yellow bile, etc. The trouble with these systems, in my mind, is that they’re basically conservative. They focus on adapting to the hierarchical nature of one’s society rather than working actively to change it. Ideally, healthy people would have such a wide focus that they could see all possibilities along the continuum of: adapting to the environment — changing the environment, and make a choice as to which is appropriate at any given moment. Actually, though, people, even healthy people, tend to cant one way or the other — towards adaptation or change.

I think that’s OK. That wide-focused person who can really decide whether adaptation or change is most appropriate in a given moment is so rare that we’d have to call that something bigger, wider than just health. So there’s healthy people who’re adaptors and healthy people who are change agents. Ideally, as long as the awareness and moveability are there, we can find some way to work together.

Health is linked to sustainability. A healthy human wouldn’t destroy the land they’re living on, or the water, or the air. He/she would be informed by common sense, by the desire to learn as much as possible about how things work, and the desire to keep the world a place where we can continue to live.

So, honestly, no matter how much people eat low cholesterol diets or work out or go to therapy, there are very few healthy people in the US right now. Maybe none. Our entire lifestyle is predicated on continuous, unceasing denial about the war economy and what we are doing to the environment, and a fairly high level of repression around responding freely to the things we experience and observe.

What is health care?

Health care would be care that helps people stay healthy if they are (or in the parts of their lives where they are), and return to it where they are not. It would totally vary depending on what’s needed — setting a broken bone, teaching people how to modulate their internal temperature, offering information about diet to the diabetic, listening and creating rituals of truth-telling and release for the abused.

As you can guess from what I wrote in “what is health?”, I believe health care would mean encouraging and teaching people to really pay attention to keeping healthy — which means noticing what strengthens you and what weakens and diminishes you, and going for the former.

A lot of problems which present as “health problems” actually are problems in people’s whole lives. I like Arnold Mindell’s book Working with the Dreaming Body on this topic. He argues that disease and symptoms are kind of “waking dream states,” pushing up the suppressed. They need to be worked with and the presenting problem needs to be encouraged to emerge, even amplified, not just pushed down.

As you can probably guess, I think most of what we call “health care” in this country is toxic. I stay as far away from it as is humanly possible.

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Monica Raymond won the Castillo Prize in political theater for her play The Owl Girl, which is about two families in an unnamed Middle Eastern country who both have keys to the same house. She was a Jerome Fellow for 2008-09 at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, among many other honors and awards. Her poetry has been published in the Colorado Review, the Iowa Review, and the Village Voice, and her work has been selected for publication by every pair of qarrtsiluni editors for ten issues in a row now.

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  1. Jim Schulman
    June 3, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    All well put! But given the dynamic nature of life, perhaps health is also somewhat relational: healthy compared with (as you say) a sick population; Or yesterday’s self. Thank you for not using that strange public health term: “wellness!”

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