Thought for the Day - Rhidian Brook - 06/03/2013
According to a report just published in the Lancet, the UK is lagging behind other developed nations when it comes to the general health of the population. Twenty years worth of data, gathered from 18 countries, indicate that it’s our lifestyle choices that are to blame as much as any failure of the health system. And we are particularly poor when it comes to dealing with preventable illnesses.
The term ‘preventable illness’ is understandable but it’s problematic. It insinuates a moral element. And I don’t think people like the idea that ill health is connected in any way to lifestyle choices they might have made. It’s much easier to see illness as something arbitrary and random – a malignant force that interrupts our otherwise healthy lives. And this image is reinforced by illnesses – especially the serious ones, being hidden and then appearing when it seems too late for us to undo any of the supposed choices that might have played their part.
Of course, plenty of illnesses are brought on by factors that are beyond our control - environmental, social, economic, hereditary. Sometimes it’s just down to accident. This week, I was faced with a messy weave of all these circumstance, when my brother nearly died after having to have an emergency operation. His life was saved –twice – and for that I gladly thank God and the NHS. But afterwards he was quick to acknowledge that his rehabilitation and hope of long-term health lies in having to take more responsibility for it.
I think illness should always be regarded as an affront, even as an insult – in the same way that death is an insult - but perhaps it’s unhelpful to see it as a surprise. If we separate it from the mundanity of our every day lives, and treat it as a supposed random force over which we have no control, we not only give it a mystique that can exercise a power over us, but we are maybe preventing ourselves from getting to its root.
Scripture might acknowledge all of these things as symptoms of a fallen world. It would certainly urge us to take seriously the connection between our choices and our health. ‘There is no health in me because of my sin,’ said the psalmist. But it also tells us that health goes deeper than the physical. When Jesus gives what initially seems like appalling health advice, saying ‘Don’t worry about what you should eat or drink or about your body,’ He isn’t ignoring our physical needs, he’s simply getting us to look somewhere else for a remedy for our ills. It’s not the bad habits he’s trying to change, it’s the deeper malaise of our anxiety; it’s our dependence on false comforts that he wants to cauterise.
Maybe it’s only when we go this deeply into the DNA of ill-health that we can begin to glimpse Isaiah’s vision of there being ‘a day when no-one will have to say that they are ill.’