Our health obsession: A few thoughts from a Mormon and G. K. Chesterton

Most people would like to be healthy, right?  Caring for your physical and mental health is usually on everyone’s priority list, and a good one to have too.  But sometimes, I think the idea can be taken a little too far.  You can find all sorts of justifications and explanations of diets, habits, and practices all over the Internet.  Here are just a few from a few Google searches:
Health benefits have become a major factor in our society.  We no longer read books to learn more about the world.  We read them because it is healthy.  Health benefits, whether proven or no, are used as a major marketing tool from organic produce to essential oils to avocados.
In the LDS realm, there is an interesting overlap of healthy choices and doctrine in the Word of Wisdom.  LDS members abstain from coffee and tea because they “are not for the body or belly.  Tobacco is “not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle.”  You may hear some members explain the Word of Wisdom in terms of health benefits.  But these days, you’re probably more likely to hear members having to explain that the Word of Wisdom isn’t entirely about health benefits and more because it’s the wisdom of God.
For me, doing something merely because it has health benefits seems to be weak reasoning.  I like to be as healthy as the next guy.  But it isn’t the first thing that comes to my mind when I explain my behavior.  It’s usually just an added bonus.  I go on hikes because I enjoy it.  It’s great that reading can improve my empathy and somehow rewires your brain.  But I usually read because I want to learn or get away for a while.
It reminded me of a passage in G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics where he is taking a stab at H. G. Wells.  Wells was a bit of eugenicist in his day, and was enamored with the idea that if we could control human breeding we could breed disease out of the human race.  He admitted that it probably wasn’t practical, but Chesterton laughs that this “seems to me a very slight objection, and almost negligible compared to the others.  The one objection to scientific marriage which is worthy of final attention is simply that such a thing could only be imposed on unthinkable slaves and cowards.”  This brings Chesterton to a discussion of the healthism of his day:
The mistake of all that medical talk lies in the very fact that it connects the idea of health with the idea of care. What has health to do with care? Health has to do with carelessness. In special and abnormal cases it is necessary to have care. When we are peculiarly unhealthy it may be necessary to be careful in order to be healthy. But even then we are only trying to be healthy in order to be careless. If we are doctors we are speaking to exceptionally sick men, and they ought to be told to be careful. But when we are sociologists we are addressing the normal man, we are addressing humanity. And humanity ought to be told to be recklessness itself. For all the fundamental functions of a healthy man ought emphatically to be performed with pleasure and for pleasure; they emphatically ought not to be performed with precaution or for precaution. A man ought to eat because he has a good appetite to satisfy, and emphatically not because he has a body to sustain. A man ought to take exercise not because he is too fat, but because he loves foils or horses or high mountains, and loves them for their own sake. And a man ought to marry because he has fallen in love, and emphatically not because the world requires to be populated. The food will really renovate his tissues as long as he is not thinking about his tissues. The exercise will really get him into training so long as he is thinking about something else. And the marriage will really stand some chance of producing a generous-blooded generation if it had its origin in its own natural and generous excitement. It is the first law of health that our necessities should not be accepted as necessities; they should be accepted as luxuries. Let us, then, be careful about the small things, such as a scratch or a slight illness, or anything that can be managed with care. But in the name of all sanity, let us be careless about the important things, such as marriage, or the fountain of our very life will fail.
I had to do some hunting to remember where I read this quote, but after searching through the 193 uses of the word “healthy” in my complete works of Chesterton, I dug it up again.  I think it is sound advice.  It reminded me that I should seek to enjoy my life, and never do things merely because they are good for you.
P.S. If you are in a political sort of mood, there’s a great article on healthism and how it is a form of government control called “Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life” by R Crawford.  You do need access to the journal, sorry. Apparently it’s not open source.

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