Health and wealth rhyme, and not just the words, although those tell a story too.
The word health comes from whole, what an organism is when its gears are humming as they ought, everything in its place, each part in sync with the others, none missing or broken or compromised by parasites. (Spinning off from whole in a different direction is holy, perhaps originally meant to describe animals fit for Temple sacrifice: They had to be, according to Leviticus, “unblemished,” or sound—that is, whole, or “healthy.”)
We say that a person enjoying wholeness, or health, is “well,” a word that gave birth to weal, as in the expression “the common weal.” Wealth is a later formation. It has come to mean the resources, the goods and services (or the ability to acquire them at a snap of the fingers) that a person needs to maintain or enhance his well-being. (About snapping your fingers, or tapping them on a keyboard to complete your online purchase, which depends on your having enough digits in your bank account to cover the cost of your heart’s desire: Will, the faculty of asserting one’s wishes and intentions, is related to well and weal and the cluster of cognates they spawned.)
Health and wealth are married, in other words. Like many couples, they have been known to spat. Lately we see them going at it in our national debate about how to pay for everyone’s health care. We spend a growing portion of our collective treasure on getting or staying well, or even just staying alive. If we distribute it more evenly, to ameliorate the hardest medical cases, we take away from others their power to purchase the splendors—art, travel, leisure, season tickets to the Red Sox—that a person can afford only after his minimum requirements of food, water, shelter, and whatever else he needs for survival have been met.
Higher valleys, lower peaks—those who fly the flag of universal health care call for flatland, a more leveled landscape. Their opponents say, No, excelsior. Higher! Dynamic free markets have done more to lift people from poverty than was ever dreamt of in any redistributionist scheme based on the shallow assumption that wealth is static.
One side invokes “health”; the other, “wealth.” The two concepts are meant to form a whole, however. When we wrench them from that, and from each other, we diminish and distort both of them. As stand-alone pieces, they wobble. Their complementarity is essential to their meaning and function. “There is no wealth [i.e., well-being] except life,” John Ruskin wrote, along the way to coining the word illth, meaning the opposite of health-wealth. Micah Meadowcroft introduced me and probably a lot of readers to the term, in a piece published earlier this month at National Review Online.
Why not poverty, the more common antonym of wealth? Because poverty implies a condition that can be remedied by “wealth” understood as a bundle of assets that are not strictly tethered to the pursuit of preserving our life and, if possible, increasing our vitality. Wealth so defined is indifferent to our biological needs. It can be used to support them—through the purchase of medical care, for example, or of a nutritional supplement—but also to buy some luxury that has side effects deleterious to our physical well-being. Spend a thousand dollars, for example, to get on a plane and fly to a distant foreign capital, for fun and cultural enrichment, and you expose yourself to radiation that damages chromosomes. When people buy cigarettes, they divert some portion of their assets to an activity that reduces their cardiopulmonary function and increases their risk of cancer. Opioids that people abuse cost money while wrecking their health.
Resources so spent act “not as wealth, but (for we ought to have a correspondent term) as ‘illth,’ causing various devastation and trouble around them in all directions,” Ruskin observed. “Many of the persons commonly considered wealthy” are “in reality” not. Most of our political energy is spent trying to secure economic advantage, or economic justice, defined in material terms. We chase the wealth whose opposite is poverty. The wealth whose opposite is illth? It’s not so much that we reject it as that we don’t think along the lines of that polarity so often or sharply.
Therein lies a hidden vein of resistance to the pro-life message. Ambivalence toward life itself runs deeper than we usually notice. Suicides grab our attention, and the emergence of the movement dedicated to a right to die corroborates their message, but otherwise the human temptation to fall half in love with easeful death flies under the radar. Underlying the public’s ambivalence about abortion is the view that what is sacred is our freedom, not our life. In our patriotic slogans and speeches, we subordinate the latter to the former constantly.
“I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly”: That a nation most of whose citizens are at least nominal Christians has not better digested that remarkable statement and been nourished by its implications is a reflection of the problem that has stymied the pro-life movement from the beginning. In modern Judaism, the halo given to the Hebrew word chai, meaning life—the word is used as a kind of blessing—conveys a literally pro-life sentiment close to the one that Jesus expressed for his largely uncomprehending hearers. They include us as well as his contemporaries.
Bracket for a moment legal arguments about rights. Bracket medical arguments about fetal development and whether the brain or the heart is where we should be looking for criteria to satisfy some technical definition of death. Realize that what most distinguishes the pro-life mind may be that it puts a higher value on the state of simply being alive than the larger culture does. We advance the cause only a little by winning points in political debates. Our main challenge is not to communicate anxiety over death but to impart our awe for the mysterious wonder that is life itself.