“Health”

Vitruvian Man, DaVinci

“Health” 

I have never, never trusted doctors. It is not because my current medical support team is unskillful or uncaring. Of course, earlier white-coated cohorts, still standing out in memory, were deficient by comparison, but that’s not the heart of the mistrust.

It goes deeper than that. I just don’t feel that the white coats understand the body. It’s not their fault, exactly. They are positioned at the intersection where the current science paradigm and our bodies cross paths. Over time, the paradigm has changed and will change again. But for now, the doctors still have to regard the body as a machine. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake points out that a motor car is a machine. It will take you to town unless it breaks down, in which case you call the mechanic to fix it. A horse, by contrast, is an organism, a living being. It will take you to town, giddyap, giddyap, if it wants to go there.

So there is this misfit between what the medical doctor claims to know and what is there to be known. It creates a natural uneasiness.

My actual experience with dentists has been far worse, but they don’t – in this way – make me uneasy. When I was a child, my mother would try her best to find work for emigres, whether or not they had gotten their American credentials. I remember those heavily-accented, 1940’s-style dentists. They really hurt! But their current colleagues don’t bother me. The teeth are little grinders, and dentists are the engineers and mechanics of the teeth. The best of them are wonderful, the worst appalling, but the point is, what they claim to know, they do know.

Aware of this gap between bodily reality and medical knowledge, where I could not find a cure among the doctors, I have tried alternative healers. I’ve been curious to see what they could do, and on the whole it’s been more interesting than trips to the doctors.

Once, lying on a table, under the influence of a sort of good witch (she actually came from Salem, Massachussetts!), I seemed to see the elusive mind/body relation – or see something about it. Unlike the mind, which can rise above injuries and offenses, the body seemed a kind of child, who nursed every bygone insult and grudge as if it were happening now. Doesn’t matter how grownup I might look to others,

the body has total recall and transcends nothing!

At times, what the alternative healers seemed to achieve was quite dramatic: lift ancient fears, unplug morbid attachments, fix the intestinal tract and get the flies out of the house.

Were they all placebo effects? Who knows and who cares? The only results one knows for a fact are not placebo are the ones you get from the dentist. Philosopher Edward Erwin has objected that the results of alternative treatments are not “proved effective and safe in randomized trials.” That’s certainly true. But like as not, five years down the road, the well-confirmed remedies on offer from the best medical hands of today will show side effects that might outweigh the benefits.

There is more to health and sickness than we know. Doctors have yet to explain how it is that we can die of a broken heart, or of a pessimistic prognosis from someone in authority, or how the common cold can get cured in an instant if we get unexpected good news.

The power to heal is an enormous power. If one seeks healing, one is taking a risk. I think one has to be on the lookout for abuses of power – from the alternative types as well as from the established medical experts. I haven’t found either type to be self-immunized against the potential for abuse.

 But that is true in every walk of life.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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