HEALTH IS tremendously important. People in the United States spend about $100 billion a year trying to restore and maintain it. This nation's health facilities employ more people than any other industry except construction. We took note earlier of the fact that health is what people desire more than anything else in the world. Health is a top priority item, all right—but have you ever tried to define it?
That shouldn't be too difficult, you may be thinking. But just give it a try; you'll find it isn't easy. In fact, definitions of health have varied greatly through the years. Let's look at a few.
"You're healthy if you don't feel sick." This idea once satisfied most people, even though it isn't true. A person may feel perfectly well and still be harboring a dangerous or even fatal condition in his body.
"Health is distance from death." That's an interesting concept, isn't it? When it comes to death, we'd all like to keep our distance.
"Health is freedom from disease." Now that sounds like a simple statement of fact, doesn't it? But it presents only a very limited view of what health really is. We observe many people around us who are not afflicted with any specific disease or infirmity, yet some of them obviously enjoy better health than others. Up to this point all of our definitions have actually been telling us what health is not. Let's move away from these narrow and constrictive viewpoints to something more positive.
Health is "the state of being hale, or sound in body, mind or soul, especially freedom from physical disease or pain," according to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary. A step in the right direction. C. L. Marshall in his book Dynamics of Health and Disease arrives at an interesting conclusion. "A person can be ill and well simultaneously. . . . Millions of Americans whose blood pressure is too high or whose blood sugar is abnormally elevated function without any difficulty whatever. .. . Health and disease are not opposites both may coexist in the same person." 1
A New Approach to Health
In 1947 the World Health Organization, established by the United Nations, put its prestige and influence behind a new approach to the understanding of health:
"Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." The word "complete" may make this definition seem rather Utopian, but at least it presents a positive and worthy goal.
Perhaps health may best be thought of in terms of degrees. Sometimes, even though you are not suffering from a specific illness, you feel worn out. You are listless, and nothing seems interest ing or particularly worthwhile. It takes all the energy you can muster just to struggle through the day. Life hardly seems worth the living.
On the other hand, some days find you full of zip. Every cell in your body seems to be electrically charged. You plow through a heavy work load with very little fatigue, and it's great just to be alive. Right?
Now, what makes the difference? Using one of the narrow, restricted views of health, you were "well" on both occasions. But it is obvious that on some days you are "well-er" than on others. There are, then, degrees of health.
Any intelligent person who has a choice would surely opt for a life of dynamic buoyancy as opposed to a dragged-out, half existence, and we do have a choice.
People and Frogs Are Different
In high school biology lab we spent considerable time cutting up frogs that had been preserved in formaldehyde. Such dissection experiments proved to be both interesting and informative. However, when it comes to people and treating their illnesses, subdivision into many medical specialties can have drawbacks.
Of course, we all appreciate the expertise demonstrated by the various specialists, and most of us have benefited from their skills. But often we feel a bit disjointed. It is as if the cardiologist appears to see us only as a heart, the ophthalmologist as a pair of eyes, the dermatologist as an envelope of skin, et cetera. Sometimes we feel like calling out, "Hey, I'm not just an anatomical jigsaw puzzle; I'm me."
It is encouraging to hear that the "family physician" is making a come back. I think he'll receive a warm welcome, although he will still seek the services of a specialist whenever indicated. While it's true that the human body encompasses a number of intricate systems—including the circulatory, the nervous, the digestive, the glandular, and others—we are more than ever aware that all these systems are inter connected and interdependent. And although the mental faculties are some thing above and beyond mere physical dimensions, we are beginning to realize that multifaceted man must be treated as a whole. He is body, soul, and spirit, and any meaningful health care must be directed toward his entire being.
Caring for the Whole Man
The "whole man" concept of health broadens our horizons considerably.
John LaPlace puts it this way. "The contrast between the traditional and the contemporary concept of health is significant. The traditional notion that health is simply absence of disease or injury helped only in a simple sense. Sick or uncomfortable patients went to the doctor. He prescribed treatments that, if they worked, restored what was considered to be health. The removal of the complaint was all-important. It rarely occurred to the doctor to ask about the home life of the patient or about successes or failures in his social relationships. Such factors seemed relatively unimportant if a person suffered from severe indigestion or high blood pressure. It took time to realize that these factors did matter, and mattered a great deal.
"Today we understand that family pressures can contribute to high blood pressure, and that tension on the job can trigger indigestion. We have developed a more comprehensive and more workable definition of health." 2
As vital as good health is, its attainment should not be our only interest. We are not advocating faddism or extremism. Health is not an end in itself, but a means of attaining to life's great purposes.
In the past we have tended to think of health almost solely on a quantitative basis. The "healthy" person was the one who avoided disease and outlived most of his friends and relatives. But even more important is the quality of life. Not merely how much life, but what kind of life. And this is really what true Christianity is all about. As Jesus emphasized, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).
1 C. L. Marshall, Dynamics of Health and Disease, 1972.
2 John LaPlace, Health (New York: Meredith Corporation, 1972), p. 2. Used by permission.