April 7 was World Health Day
In Australia there is much interest in personal health and the things that keep us healthy: diet, health insurance, medications, supplements and health care. Good health is seen as a right and a duty, and when it fails the first question we ask is: who is to blame? There is less emphasis on avoiding social illnesses, such as alcoholism.
In developing nations there are many more basic threats to health. Most of them are associated with poverty, and so could easily be addressed with the right resources. Many of the diseases that kill children, such as dysentery and cholera, are carried in polluted water and are rendered more lethal by malnutrition and by lack of living space. Other lethal diseases, such as malaria and AIDS, can be treated by drugs available in wealthier nations. The enjoyment of good health depends largely on wealth.
That is true also in Australia where the life expectancy and general health of Indigenous Australians are shamefully lower than those of the general population. As for other Australians, their health rests on good health care, adequate food, good water and sanitation and on good community support for families, as well as opportunities for education adapted to the community and for work afterwards. To improve people’s health, you need good doctors and nurses.
But more fundamentally you need good support for communities based on listening and not on telling. At Jesuit Social Services the Indigenous people whom serve help us to be acutely aware of the disadvantage they face.
That said, even in a community that enjoys generally good health there will be people who are chronically ill or who contract life-threatening illnesses. We can care reasonably for our health, but our care cannot guarantee it. On World Health Day we should turn our attention also to people who are sick.
One of St Ignatius’ most striking statements was a throwaway line – a position he simply took for granted when discussing something else. He began, ‘Since sickness is no less a gift from God than good health…’ If we are sick, even with the common cold, it is hard to think of it as a gift from God. It feels more like a curse or a warning. Certainly, God does want our good health and expects us to take all reasonable care of it. But it remains true that our lives with all their conditions and limitations are God’s gift, so that we thank God for being invited into this life to live it as is given, not as we would like it to be.
Ill health can be an opportunity as well as a handicap. It makes us depend on others, grow in sympathy to others who are similarly afflicted, and encourages us to open our life to others. It is part of the rich fabric of our humanity and of our journey from birth to death.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.