Our Health Comes Through Commitment to Others

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Above physical factors, health is primarily a byproduct of how we relate to each other.

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Mens sana in corpore sano -- a sound mind in a sound body. Many of us take this to mean that the soundness of the mind depends on the soundness of the body. But when the Roman poet Juvenal first coined this phrase, almost 2,000 years ago, he seems to have had the opposite in mind: the health of the flesh depends on the excellence of the thinking and feeling part. The purpose of developing virtues such as moderation is not primarily to enable us to lead longer, healthier lives and spend fewer of our days in a state of sickness or discomfort. Instead we aim first to become better people. Goodness is its own reward, and one of the byproducts of goodness is better health.

In the spirit of Juvenal, we should beware the temptation to think too much about the body, especially if it leads us to neglect what he would have called the needs of the soul. Health is not just the absence of disease. Nor is it merely the sum total of a battery of biological metrics, such as our waistlines, blood pressures, serum chemistry values, and an appropriately balanced mix of neurotransmitters. To be sure, it is a good thing when such values are in the normal range, but no amount of attention to getting the numbers right can guarantee the flourishing of mind and character.

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As everyone is talking of the "holiday spirit," remember that it means waking up each morning with the conviction that we are on a mission to enrich others' lives. Isolation, mistrust, resentment, greed, and fear are all bad for us, not primarily because they render us more likely to develop cancer or suffer a heart attack or stroke, but because they undermine our capacity to live. The interests of the body are best served not by designated drivers and rigidly enforced diet plans, but by organizing our days so that each of us brings more humanity into the world. Health is not the most important thing in life. It is primarily a byproduct of the pursuit of the most important things life has to offer.

Health is also not something that we can hoard up for ourselves. Its value is realized not in its accumulation, but in its spending. 

If one day we wake up in full possession of our bodily faculties and feeling our best, our best course of action is not to down a fruit and vegetable puree or go for a jog. Health achieves its fullest expression in connection, trust, gratitude, and a habit of rejoicing in the flourishing of others.

Our Darwinian age tends to see life as a struggle against scarcity to survive, but in fact life for most of us life is characterized less as survival of the fittest than flourishing of the wisest. Health is not just what is happening inside the body of any particular person. Instead it is also what is going on collectively. How aware are we of one another? How committed are we to one another? How much of our hope and ambition for every day is bound up in an ongoing commitment to make a difference in the life of another person?

This is, of course, the essential lesson learned by Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. A physician might encourage him to take more exercise, to eat a more varied and balanced diet, perhaps to take medications to control his blood pressure or blood sugar. Seeing that he never smiles, we might even suggest that he consider an antidepressant. But all our prescriptions would be for naught, because Scrooge's disorder is not primarily bodily but spiritual.

Through the opportunity to survey his days from a superhuman perspective, Scrooge learned that his life has been utterly empty and devoid of humanity. The opportunity to follow the Socratic injunction and examine life anew enables him to chart a new course, one centered less on taking for self and more on sharing with others. What Scrooge experiences for the first time in a very long time is the best medicine we have for the human soul. It is not found in a bottle, a pair of jogging shoes, or a juicer. The highest and best medicine, the only one that can truly suffuse and elevate everything else, is joy. Joy is life-affirming, life-restoring, and life-enhancing. Joy, and only joy, brings us truly and fully to life.

Our own health, the health of those around us, and the health of the nation depends less on what policymakers in Washington do or don't do and more on the choices each of us makes. Do we know that we are here for a reason, that we are called to important work, that the world is beckoning us to share the very best we have to offer? Undue focus on our own health makes us less than we are meant to be.

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Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts, and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the Radiology Department, at Indiana University. Gunderman's most recent book is X-Ray Vision.

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