Sunday, June 26, 2016

Health is not a virtue

I was a healthy child. I had a healthy immediate family, too. We all got sick occasionally, and my sisters and I have all broken a bone at some point, but we just weren't the sort of people to have chronic ailments or other serious health concerns. At least, that's the best I could muster to explain my surprise each time when, over the years, we've had cases of autoimmune disorders, anxiety and depression, and cancer. So I'd like to correct my impression that health, like other positive qualities, is a virtue.

Health is not a virtue.

Health can be a consequence of conscientious behavior, but is not a reward for it. Taking meticulous care of oneself might not be enough to ensure good health, so even those who work hard for their health cannot take 100% credit for it. As far as my thinking goes, I'm going to try to detach the fortuity of good health from the virtuous behavior of creating a healthy environment for myself and the people around me.

Beauty is not a virtue.

I feel pressure to conform to cultural stereotypes of beauty, but what's the point? To give people something nicer to look at? What I really want is the value people ascribe to those who are beautiful. What if instead we valued people who make others feel good about themselves, free to admit their insecurities without fear of judgement?

Youth is not a virtue.

Somehow, as a child, I had the never-fully-expressed, even to myself, idea that old people were that way because they deserved to be. That I, of course, would never be old, because I am young and therefore deserve to be. I remember the first time I saw a photograph of my grandfather when he was my dad's age—that was the first time I really understood that (if all goes well) I would sometimes be my parents' age, and they my grandparents' age, and I too would grow wrinkly and white-haired. I would like to think of the elderly not as a different species, but as a wise group of people whom I would like to join and from whom I can already be learning.

Intelligence is not a virtue.

My intelligence has been a central part of my identity for as long as I can remember. I like a mental challenge much more than a physical one (although that's no longer as true as it once was), and I'd much rather read and think than speak and do. But when wanting to appear intelligent keeps me from speaking up when I don't understand, or trying something hard that I might fail at, not only do I lose out, but so does everyone else who might benefit from my input. Instead of valuing intelligence as a virtue initself, I propose that the truly virtuous are those who put effort into solving real problems, and who make it easier for others to do so as well.


  1. Thoughtfully and well said, Owen! Thank you.

  2. I have this quote up in my classroom:
    "It seems strange that we talk about intelligence as if it is a choice -- and a moral one at that -- while we treat kindness as a thing you either have or you don't. The reality is that people aren't naturally "kind" the way that are naturally smart, beautiful, or talented. Being a good person is a choice, and not an easy one, which makes it much more impressive than any of the attributes."

    1. That's a great quote! Do you remember where it's from?

  3. I love this. What you said about youth could apply to my experience of health as well. I think for a long time I thought that if people got seriously sick they were probably doing something to prompt it but now that my life experience has thoroughly taught me otherwise, I'm astounded I ever believed that. I know 50 year smokers who never got cancer and people in pristine health who passed away in their 30s. This whole post is so smart/thoughtful.

    1. Thanks so much! I feel the same astonishment at my past self. It makes me want to love everybody extra much to make up for it.


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