Health problems are human problems, and they can be important stories about real things affecting real people. But often, in telling them, we create another problem, because we make the story conform to our expectations for a narrative: A protagonist meets an enemy or endures a trial and prevails, displaying virtue and imparting a moral lesson. We use words that signal this paradigm: A person who has a life-threatening condition or injury is a hero who is brave in fighting (or struggling with) it. The hero’s story is inspiring. Perhaps the resolution comes by a medical miracle. Perhaps the hero is lucky in having avoided even greater hardship.
Sure, it makes good storytelling. But a person who is facing a serious health problem is not doing it so we can be inspired. An inspiring hero is someone who makes a choice to leave a normal, comfortable life to help others. That’s a lot to load onto someone who didn’t choose to have a health problem and who really just wants to get back to a normal, comfortable life. They didn’t ask to be the star in our inspiration porn. They didn’t get sick so we can feel better.
Fighting can be a useful self-image for some people trying to get healthier, but that doesn’t mean we should force a sick person into the role of a warrior. Struggling with is worse — it tends to imply that the person is not winning. It gets used a lot with mental health problems. And what image does struggling bring to mind? Perhaps something like Houdini trying to escape from a straitjacket? Not helpful.
Hero, brave, and inspiring automatically add a dimension of moral virtue. Recovering from illness or injury does not have a moral dimension. Health is not a token of individual moral merit. Suggesting that it is implies bad things about people who are not able to be as healthy as we think they should be. It makes it easier for us to view certain health conditions — troubles with physical fitness or mental wellness, for instance — as signs of moral failing. If we make heroes of those who prevail, we make failures of those who don’t.
Likewise, the combined efforts of many people using science and their wits to beat the odds in a medical crisis do not constitute a miracle. A miracle is a divine intervention and implies blessing, which has a strong moral dimension — and it implies less divine favour for others who didn’t experience a miracle.
Lucky assumes a storyline in which the precipitating bad event is already a given. But wouldn’t they prefer not to be cast in that storyline at all? It isn’t lucky to come out of an accident with two broken legs instead of being killed, or to miss two weeks of work or school instead of a year with a serious infection.
All of us, when we have a health problem, want to solve it. We don’t need the implication that it has anything to do with our moral character, or that we shouldn’t complain because it could be worse. When talking about health crises, let’s try to stick to the facts: the problem, the available options for dealing with it, the stage of recovery. Leave the novel treatments for the doctors.
James Harbeck will present “Translating medicalese into everyday English” at Editors Canada’s Conference 2019 in Halifax, June 7 to 9.
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