A Healthy Life

By Guy Bourgeault
[© Eastcott Momatiuk/Getty Images]

At the age of nine, I was struck by the abundance and variety of life: gathering red and gold autumn leaves, it occurred to me that not one leaf was identical to another and there are so many trees and forests! As I approach 80, still not yet able to take stock of my life to date and unable to foresee what is to come, I am struck by that same feeling.

Through all the years of my life (which is like water, sometimes calm and sometimes gushing), there have been so many twists and turns that I am surprised palm readers or psychologists can talk of one's "life line." The life we are living--and which we can't observe as an external reality--is so full of influences of all kinds. We don't take into account the extravagance of our life if we reduce it to a linear, one-dimensional journey. The idea that life could be a preordained journey that conforms to a set path comes from our inability to experience the richness and the incredible sense of fullness that comes from living rather than just observing.

Life is a tapestry of unforeseen surprises and grim losses. Georges Canguilhem (1904-95) defined health as a bond with life--a real living bond, not just in the mind--felt by all living beings, and more specifically the human being and everyone in his or her life; as the capacity of the living being, and especially that of the human, to face the demands of life whilst continuously exposed to the risk of loss, and ultimately death.

Death In Life

Two years ago, the woman with whom I had the fortune and privilege to share my life for 35 years received a sudden diagnosis from a doctor who was also a friend: a verdict, delivered with gentle and respectful tenderness, of incurable cancer of the pancreas. Devastatingly, the cancer was to take her life within 10 weeks. My partner did not express any of the denial, revolt, begging, even anger really, that is expected and virtually decreed by psychologists and other specialists.

There was sadness, yes, and there were tears for two nights, then a mutual decision to refuse to let death inhibit the life that was still there for us to experience together. "What do I have to complain about?" she said. "You are here, and the children too. I have everyone around me, while so many women in the world die every day on their own, under bombs, after suffering rape." Dare I say that I learned a lot during those 10 weeks, during which she serenely mourned her life, and I mourned too? Who knows when it would be my turn to quit life or to be abandoned by it?

And now unforeseen encounters have once again changed the color of my life. Sunshine has returned, after so many passing moons that faithfully brought, without my really noticing, a certain warmth to me. My life goes on and no doubt will go on for months and perhaps years to come, as it did in the past, bringing tenderness and jubilation as well as anxieties and sometimes real anguish from which my insurance contributions cannot protect me. Such is the risk of life: we cannot live without there being the risk of losing life. Our life, inevitably subject to risk, is simultaneously "enchantment and sorrow," as expressed in the title of the beautiful book by the Quebec author and novelist Gabrielle Roy (1909-83): Life is a gift, a project, a responsibility.

Savoring life

Life is a gift. No one has a right to life before being, without having ever decided it, alive. Cherished by life through no merit of my own, I sometimes have the feeling when meeting people--usually those younger than me who have had a tougher life--that I am taking advantage of life's unfairness by having a taste of shameless happiness. I can savor it nonetheless. I say life is a gift, but I should perhaps say life is gifts, given that life--at least my own--is manifold. And I believe this to be the case for others, if not for everyone.

Life is a project. Again, I should use the plural here: projects, which are in the end just brave replies to life's invitations. Brave in that we know that invitations can be retracted or even erased by illness or death. But why should this unhappy consciousness curb the desire that is but an anticipation of the pleasure life will bring us? The same brave attitude allows us also to embrace the challenge of the unexpected, despite the inherent risks in doing so.

Life is a responsibility to the extent that we can gain a grasp on it, however weak and limited. Some friends told me that I am in good health because I do the right things: I don't smoke, I am active, and I eat well. It is however more likely that I have simply won the genetic lottery. One of my brothers was afflicted at the age of nine by polio, which I appear to have warded off. He was badly affected by it, suffering the consequences until his death in his early 50s. This was certainly not a consequence of him not looking after himself--though this does not mean that we should leave everything up to fate and adopt a careless attitude to life.

We can have two attitudes to life, two "ways" of dealing with it and fulfilling our responsibilities: control vs. care. Care comes from respect and attention. I do feel we place too much emphasis on control and too little on care. In effect, this applies to all our social or institutional policies, all our plans and all our practices, notably in the field of health, education and social intervention. Since we are powerless to avoid all evil, we tend to increase our levels of prevention and control in order to relieve or compensate for unhappiness once it has arisen and to minimize the risk of accidents, illness, educational failure and so on happening in the future. In doing so, we seek only to control life, which, in the end, has the effect of hindering life; it stops it from blossoming.

Living, for us humans, is learning to face the challenges of life. When we have the power to decide and act, we should go for control and prevention since life is never without risk. But let us also build a relationship to life based on acceptance and attentiveness, on kindness and deference. Despite everything, let us trust in life, in its power, which can--little by little--live within us and become our power. Let us concern ourselves with sustaining and fostering life--our own and that of others. This doesn't make life any easier, just richer.

[© Seikyo Shimbun]

Guy Bourgeault is a professor at the University of Montreal, Canada. He is a specialist in Ethics and Education, Philosophy of Education, Ethics, Health and Society. He published the dialogue On Being Human: Where Ethics, Medicine and Spirituality Converge (Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal) with René Simard and Daisaku Ikeda in 2002. See an excerpt from this book.