Sunday, August 19, 2012

What is Health?

You know what the most horrible sight is to a runner? It's a runner who doesn't enjoy running. They're easy to spot — drenched in sweat, not moving very fast, and the look on their faces is of utter misery. On the hottest days of the year I see them advancing upon the sun-drenched sidewalks, sullen circus animals without a ringmaster. Why do they even bother? They do it for their health.

I've run since middle school, and among runners who've run for that long, it's common knowledge that the things you must do to be a good runner are not necessarily healthy. In fact, running can be incredibly unhealthy, and has landed me in the doctor's office way more than necessary for someone my age. I've had x-rays, MRIs, bone scans, physical therapy, Graston technique, masochistic massages, and acupuncture, all for the sake of my unhealthy hobby.

If all I cared about was health, I would run a lot less. I would swim more, I'd do yoga and weights. I'd be balanced. But I don't want to be balanced. I want to run, because running feels better than swimming, and running feels better than balance. It hurts in a way that I love so much that sometimes, when I get back from a particularly great run, I have to stop at my doorstep for a while and close my eyes and just notice the charge going through my body, thinking, this must be what heroin feels like — but healthier.

Maybe the problem is that we ask too much of the word "health." When a doctor advises a patient to run because it's healthy, he's referring to something very particular. But there are so many different kinds of health: there's heart health, mental health, the health of your spleen and your bowels and your skin and your hair. There's the health of all the many cells in your body, each measured on its own separate axis. Sometimes your body works like a positive feedback loop, with health in one place promoting health in another. But just as often, health in one place diminishes it in another. Or maybe trying to be healthy in two certain areas at the same time cancels them both out.

Here's how this plays out in my life: To go on a run, I have to get up early. So to feel rested, I try to go to bed early. But then, what if some nice boy is nudging me to have sex at two in the morning? That's healthy too. So maybe I decide to run after work, but then I'm less relaxed when I'm at my desk all day. I feel like I'm constantly juggling all these different types of health, and constantly dropping a ball or three.

But maybe that's okay. To continue with the ball metaphor, maybe what matters most is that I'm still juggling. If that's the case, choosing to drop a ball every now and then is actually what allows me to be healthy. There is only so much room in life, and so choosing to be healthy is actually about choosing what you want to sacrifice. That's a little sad, because all the different types of health are wonderful, and nobody wants to give any of them up. But when you can't bear to sacrifice anything — now that's really unhealthy.


  1. you haven't posted in so long that i misread your blog name as "different kind of hummus"

    sounded tasty :)

  2. As you know, I love this. But I think your conception of health as choosing one aspect over another still sounds like "healthy" in the awful, negative medical sense: no pain, longer life, sacrifice.

    I think there is another health, a Nietzschean Health, an affirmation of everything — no sacrifice but affirmation of the pain, the pleasure, the suffering. And this resounding Yes is the great counterpoint to the slavish medical establishment that hides pain, privileges sacrifice, and opts for longer life over better life.

    This kind of health makes one "healthy at bottom," as Nietzsche says: from intestines to spirit.

    1. Yes. You're right. I set out to write this with that idea of health in mind - it was a New Yorker article about the runner Alberto Salazar that gave me the idea. Salazar says, "The pain of running is like the pain of drowning." And that he says this while trying describe what he loves about running didn't seem odd to me at all. Somewhere along the way, I decided that all that stuff about affirmation of pain belonged in a separate post, but actually, maybe it didn't.

      Still, isn't there something about being limited, having to choose between different types of health? How does that fit in? I guess in a truly Nietzschean sense, it wouldn't be sacrifice - it would all be affirmation.

      "Healthy at the bottom" is so great. But also slippery - I start to understand this stuff and then a few minutes later I don't. You describe it here as "from intestines to spirit," but could you go so far as to say "intestines as spirit?"

  3. I think choice or selection — discernment — is constitutive of health. Of course. It's constitutive of life: it is our taste. But a) it need not be sacrifice per se; and s) while a necessary condition of health, it is not sufficient. Choosing x rather than y does not make you healthy. Choosing those things that affirm you, that make you more vital: that is health.

    And while spirit comes from the intestines, I don't think we can equate them. Surely, there is a component of ourselves that is not material — our affect, our style, our mood, our comportment. The two are intimately interwoven but not the same.