Wendell Berry

Berry is a poet, essayist, novelist, and farmer from Kentucky. After reading work like this, you will realize that he is also something of a prophet. Wonderfully helpful for thinking about the meaning of health. From Ed.

Delivered as a speech at a conference, “Spirituality and Healing”, at Louisville, Kentucky, on October 17, 1994

From our constant and increasing concerns about health, you can tell how seriously diseased we are. Health, as we may remember from at least some of the days of our youth, is at once wholeness and a kind of unconsciousness. Disease (dis-ease), on the contrary, makes us conscious not only of the state of our health but of the division of our bodies and our world into parts.

The word “health,” in fact, comes from the same Indo-European root as “heal,” “whole,” and “holy” To be healthy is literally to be whole; to heal is to make whole. I don’t think mortal healers should be credited with the power to make holy. But I have no doubt that such healers are properly obliged to acknowledge and respect the holiness embodied in all creatures, or that our healing involves the preservation in us of the spirit and the breath of God.

If we were lucky enough as children to be surrounded by grown-ups who loved us, then our sense of wholeness is not just the sense of completeness in ourselves but also is the sense of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having in common. It may be that this double sense of singular integrity and of communal belonging is our personal standard of health for as long as we live. Anyhow, we seem to know instinctively that health is not divided.

Of course, growing up and growing older as fallen creatures in a fallen world can only instruct us painfully in division and disintegration. This is the stuff of consciousness and experience. But if our culture works in us as it should, then we do not age merely into disintegration and division, but that very experience begins our education, leading us into knowledge of wholeness and of holiness. I am describing here the story of Job, of Lazarus, of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, of Milton’s Samson, of King Lear. If our culture works in us as it should, our experience is balanced by education; we are led out of our lonely suffering and are made whole.

In the present age of the world, disintegration and division, isolation and suffering seem to have overwhelmed us. The balance between experience and education has been overthrown, we are lost in experience, and so-called education is leading us nowhere. We have diseases aplenty. As if that were not enough, we are suffering an almost universal hypochondria. Half the energy of the medical industry, one suspects, may now be devoted to “examinations” or “tests”-to see if, though apparently well, we may not be latently or insidiously diseased.

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