In Sickness and in Health

Society treats health as binary because it needs to keep functioning. When a factory worker has the flu, it is better for the business if that person doesn’t show up. Otherwise, ten factory workers might have the flu next week. The same applies to schools, concerts, or gatherings of important politicians: Wherever there’s a risk of disease spreading, we try to prevent the diseased from attending, and that makes sense.

The result, however, is that every child learns that health only comes in two forms: You either have it, or you don’t, and depending on your current status, you will (and should be) blocked from certain activities until you have your wellness back. This mindset comes with a long tail of problems.

I first glimpsed health’s more continuous true nature in 2016. After shipping a big article right on time, a big lump of stress fell off my chest, but all it did was make way for a nasty virus. I learned that some kinds of stress are better than others, and that it wasn’t the strain itself that got me but its imbalance. We always have some stress — the question is whether we actively manage its types and totality so it won’t knock us out.

In the same vein, we are always ill to some degree. Both our physical and mental health are sliders on a spectrum, and we must constantly make an effort to keep these barometers well-balanced. You might not have missed a day at work in years yet go to the dermatologist every week because you have dry skin. You could be a million-dollar rockstar living the dream but feel completely empty and depressed on the inside. You may be confined to a wheelchair but improve the mental health of millions through your positive attitude.

In other words: You’re never 100% healthy, and you’re never 100% sick. While this means there’s always something to worry about, work on, and improve, it also suggests there’s always something to feel good about, enjoy, and capitalize on. If you can no longer sprint because of a knee injury, perhaps you can lift weights and discover you have a knack for it. What makes you anxious about playing the trumpet in front of the whole school might be the very thing that makes you a great listener and private trumpet tutor.

Health is a dynamic, ever-moving balance, and if we want to use ours to its full potential, we must keep flowing with it. The limits of our physical health are not always clear, but they’re more obvious than our mental ones: When our body won’t allow us to get out of bed, we simply can’t. When it’s our mind telling us to stay under the covers, things become tricky.

“Whenever I began to feel a tiny bit ill again, I would become deeply anxious and depressed that I was back to being properly ill,” Matt Haig writes about his mental health struggles. “It would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would become ill because I believed I was.” The solution? Like eating good food, exercising, and sleeping enough to maintain our body, we also have to work on our inner attitude and balance. Those, too, are tasks we’ll always face. “We have to accept that bad feelings and memories can return,” but we an also take comfort in the fact that “if they do we will be ready for them, accepting of what they are, transient and changing.”

If anything showed us health isn’t binary, it’s coronavirus. Some people barely had any symptoms. Others went to the ICU, lost their sense of smell for months, or even…died. Different countries came up with different rules, and different people came up with different ways of flouting them. Some took planes they weren’t allowed to take. Others refused to wear masks or strategically didn’t test themselves. This isn’t to say the rules were perfect, but it proves that even though it was (and still is) a global health crisis, there was no one-size-fits-all solution — because there’s no straight line demarcating the “healthy/not healthy” border for humans.

Long before covid, flu-ridden people went to work. Parents sent their chickenpox-plagued children into kindergarten. “Let them all get it and be done with it!” Will a 19-year-old skip a concert because of a dry cough? Probably not, especially if they can “kill the bacteria” with alcohol. Are these good ideas? Unlikely. Meanwhile, depressed people often keep to themselves for far too long. Don’t wait until the dark thoughts already have you by the ankle. Speak up now! Call a number. Start a chat. There are plenty of free resources, and you can confide in someone anonymously.

You’re never 100% healthy, and you’re never 100% sick. “Reality isn’t a simple jar we can stick a label on, to say this is what it is, and it will never change,” Haig writes. “We can move against the current of life, and forever meet resistance, or we can let our thoughts flow, and become the free uncertain river.”

Be water, my friend.