Friday, May 28, 2004

Puritan Thoughts

People are too fat. They cost the health care system far too much. Smokers are evil. Their health care shouldn't be covered. Pregnant women should not run, take hot baths, go to work, get angry or sad. If they do, they're sinners and deserve chastizing, maybe ultimately even prison sentences.

This is my summary of many health issues I read or hear about. There is a fire-and-brimstone tinge to these stories, an air of moral putrification and its purification, and the experts are sometimes not easily separable from enthusiastic preachers and judges. A sort of a Puritan carneval.

Now we're all eagerly out there condemning overweight people. Overweight causes more preventable deaths than smoking, we're told. And then we go for the artery: Who's to blame? Maybe McDonald's is. But no, every overeater is responsible for her or his own extra pounds. And here's what you do: cut out everything that brings you some psychological relief during your long and stressful day, replace these things with raw slices of cabbage and jog home with a backpack full of stones. Or if you're very poor, just take seven buses with poorly overlapping connections to the nearest organic food store and spend your month's income on expensive fresh produce. Then take seven buses back and cook for the next four hours. And the children in ghettoes? Well, they should ride their bikes to school or walk. And the children in the suburbs? Well, they can't take bikes or walk, they might be kidnapped, you know, so parents should drive them to martial arts classes and to gym classes and to baseball clubs. Of course, then the parents will get fat from all that sitting in the cars.

Then we'd all be really healthy and deserving of others' respect. Until the next purification carneval comes along, and some other deep weakness in our personalities, nay, in our very souls will become the object of public condemnation and scrutiny.

I'm not a Puritan goddess. I'm slender and healthy due to my divine genes, so it would not be fair of me to join this raving and ranting. But let me point out a few corrective facts: Fact 1: The most expensive patients for the health care system are ultimately the "healthy lifestyle" people, as they'll end up in nursing homes until they are 102. Nursing homes are very expensive to run. The average beer-and-hamburgers guzzler will keel over quickly of a heart attack at sixty and save us both the retirement payments and the nursing home costs, especially if he or she is one of those people who don't bother with checkups and stuff so that there is no forewarning of the attack.

Fact 2: People usually try to live their lives as best they can. Parents don't usually try to make their children fat slobs with diabetes. Pregnant mothers don't usually try to choose lifestyles as bad as possible for their fetuses. Sometimes people eat too much or smoke because this life can be almost unbearable at times without such crutches.
Yes, by all means, give people better information, give them healthy, quick and cheap recipes. Make the streets safe for kids to ride their bikes, encourage walking and playing outside. Give workers some relief from stress, and have grocery stores offer good healthy food at a reasonable cost. Give everybody the know-how they need to negotiate life successfully. But don't blame those who falter. You have not walked in their shoes. Maybe they're better people than you, Mr. or Ms. Expert. Maybe they take care of orphaned children, maybe they spend hours working in the soup kitchens, maybe they rescue abandoned animals. Maybe they're just ordinary people in a world that sometimes seems to go crazy around us, and we have no control over those events. And you're going to tell them how bad that chocolate bar is going to be to their arteries in ten years' time?

Fact 3: People will ultimately die. Even if their mothers never smoked and drank while pregnant, even if they exercized every day of their lives and never ate anything but bran and flax oil (or especially then). We can't control this, and we can't control all the diverse causes of disease and accidents. We can try our best, but there comes a time when we must say that this is how life is. It ends. What should matter more, perhaps, is how that life is lived, what it has brought to the world, how we share the trip together. What could matter more is some compassion, some humility, some love towards others. And who knows, this might make us all healthier, too.