The Experience of Health

In setting out to portray the experience of health, one is struck by how little people are used to focusing on it. This tendency to overlook health—to take it for granted—is also reflected in the paucity of descriptive literature on the subject. In many ways this is precisely the point. To be healthy is to be freed from some of the limitations and problems that promote self-reflection. A healthy person need not pause before scheduling a dinner for later in the week or grabbing a shovel to clear the driveway of snow. The state of health that allows for such engagements remains the tacit background of what Maurice Merleau-Ponty, drawing on the work of Edmund Husserl, calls the bodily "I can": I can get out of bed, move across the room, brush my teeth, and so forth, without a need to explicitly define or acknowledge these abilities—or the wellness that make them possible.

Sometimes people are provoked to reflect on their good health: they revel in their renewed strength after a bout of flu, for example. Health is thus illuminated by contrasting experiences. Certain practices, such as yoga, tai chi, and exercise programs, can systematically teach one to cultivate and appreciate the healthy state, heightening self-awareness.

However, Western culture has tended to neglect or demean bodily experience in favor of a detached rationality or cultivation of the soul (Leder, 1990). People learn to overlook or overcome the body until it seizes their attention, as it does at times of pain and illness. Even preventative health education tends to focus on external guidelines concerning exercise, diet, and the like, but do little to cultivate an inner awareness of the body's own voice. Perhaps many illness states could be avoided if people were better listeners to the subtler messages of the body that signal a departure from good health. Yet to be healthy is ever a temptation to overlook, or look beyond, the body. The word health comes from the same root as the word whole. The healthy body operates as a harmonious whole, allowing one to feel at home in the world (Svenaeus) without the need for undue self-reflection.

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