Medicine and Meaning

“Modern medical science largely considers the human body to be a kind of mechanical model, a sort of vehicle like a car that needs to be checked by a garage every so often.”

from The Way Toward Health by Jane Roberts

A driver who for some reason is in a hurry to get somewhere decides to ‘run the red light’ at a junction, and has an accident. Yet would we even think of seeking to explain their consequent injuries purely as a result of automobile mechanics, for example suspecting the possibility of ‘faulty pedals’ or some other mechanical defect – seeing this as what ‘caused’ the car to go through the red light (and then subjecting the car to a whole series of diagnostic tests).* This would seem absurd to common sense – and yet it is no less absurd than seeing the body as a mechanical vehicle – like a car – and treating illness as something caused by a technical fault in some part of parts that vehicle.

For cars also have drivers. To be sure, the driver in our example made a choice, whereas we do not normally think of ourselves as ‘choosing’ to get ill. Yet the driver’s choice itself was no doubt a response to a current or overall life situation. The driver might have been in a hurry for some reason, for example late for work or for a job interview. The decision to run the red light may not even have been a fully conscious or premeditated decision – simply a more or less aware bodily reaction to the specific life situation itself. Nevertheless shooting the red light was a choice.

What if the same applies to illness? Namely that there is a way in which we do not so much consciously ‘choose’ as subconsciously ‘accede’ to getting ill, albeit in a particular life context and for particular life reasons that are quite conscious to us: for example a pressing need to get a job – or even a subconscious desire to use the illness as a way of taking ‘time out’ from the pressures of life and/or receiving care and attention. Whatever the possible meaning of the accident/illness might be for a specific individual there is one thing we can be sure of however – there is such a meaning – and that just seeking, however thoroughly, for a mechanical fault in the individual’s bodily ‘vehicle’ will never reveal it.

Indeed even were such a mechanical fault to be discovered or diagnosed, it might itself be the result of a subconscious decision on the part of our ‘driver’ in response to a situation arising in their life journey i.e. something that in some way drove them to neglect that vehicle or ignore its warning signs. Simply taking the vehicle to a garage and repairing the fault will therefore not address its true meaning or that of its possible consequences. For these have to do with the life circumstances of the human being and not the mechanics or ‘biology’ of his bodily vehicle alone. Simply to say, for example, that the driver got a dodgy vehicle with an inherited ‘fault’, that they neglected it or abused it through mishandling – or that they failed to put it through a regular medical ‘MOT’ – is not enough. For the question ‘why?’ still remains – a question of life motive and meaning and not a mere matter of some inherited biological or mechanical ‘defect’, ‘accident’, or sequence of ‘cause and effect’.

Even for our hypothetical driver who ends up in hospital due to a serious ‘accident’ the result might be a highly meaningful and life-changing one in a positive sense, allowing him or her to re-think their life and not just receive treatment for their body. Yet this simple but basic distinction – between the life of the human being and its expression in the life of the human body – is consistently ignored by medical science and biological medicine – which by seeking explanations for illness purely in terms of defects of our bodily ‘vehicle’ blocks all forms of research into the meaning of illness. For even if a defect is found in the form of some medically recognised ‘disease’ or ‘disorder’, biological medicine cannot yet explain the cause of the disease or disorder itself – except in terms of some genetic defect. Yet not even any form of genetic explanation can actually explain why one individual and not another should contract a particular disease. For just as not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, and not everyone falls ill from an epidemic, neither does everyone with an errant gene end up with the disease associated with it.

*acknowledgement to Andrew Gara for this significant analogy

%d bloggers like this: