Thursday, January 16, 2020

Hale and Hearty - Health and Beauty in the Human Person, Part 2

Does it help a doctor to treat the patient if he appreciates the beauty of the person and relates to him as a Christian? I think so.

In this article, I argue that the best doctors will be aware of what human health is to be able to treat them. Furthermore, to know what health is requires them to understand what a human person is, which means the study and acceptance of Christian anthropology. I argue that the very best doctor - or health practitioner of any description - will do more than grasp this intellectually, but will relate to the patient as a human person. To relate with a patient fully involves more than simply the adoption of Christian morality. It is a Christian formation, with the liturgy and mystagogical catechesis at its heart that will most powerfully form a good doctor.

In the first part of this article, I tried to establish a good working definition of health. In this part, I discuss why the best doctor, one who can help a patient to achieve this ideal, will be one who relates to others as a Christian. I explain why, in my view, such a doctor will be one who deeply appreciates also the beauty of the human person and is formed supernaturally as a Christian through a mystagogical catechesis with the worship of God at its heart. I begin from the definition of health that established at the end of part one.

Plastic surgery is the response of the modern medical profession to the question of human beauty. The best doctors, I suggest, appreciate the beauty of the human person in a way that is not limited to physical attractiveness.
A proposed definition of health
Reflecting on all of this so far, here is a proposed definition of health: health is the harmony of all aspects of the human person - body, soul, and spirit - in accordance with our freedom to choose happiness both now and in eternity. Healthcare, regardless of what particular aspect of the human person it is focussed on is always concerned, therefore, with the treatment of the whole person and the optimization of that freedom to choose happiness.

Happiness. What is it and how do we get it?
What we all seek is happiness, and as Aristotle points out, every choice we make is done with a view to increasing our happiness. The doctor cannot prescribe happiness, but he can contribute to the freedom of the person to choose it if he knows what happiness is and what is necessary to obtain it. The source of the difficulty in defining precisely well-being and health relate with all its ramifications, I suggest, is at root a reluctance to acknowledge a fundamental truth, that happiness is what we seek in this life and the next, and that God made us that way so that we might seek Him.

Happiness is one of those words that is almost impossible to define without descending into circular definitions of the sort that we have already encountered. An inability to define the word doesn’t mean that we don’t know what it is, however. Most people who could not define it would nevertheless say that we know it when we get it, and we know when we don’t have it. Also, most people can naturally distinguish between various degrees of superficial or temporary happiness. All forms of happiness are desirable and good, but not all fulfill the desire for a deep and permanent happiness that is in our hearts.

I would make the case that happiness is in fact, indefinable - ineffable - that is, beyond words. This is a mystery that need not worry us however, for what we desire is available to all of us. I quote here from the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann (d.1983):
‘The ultimate mystery of the Church consists in knowing the Holy Spirit, in receiving Him, in being in Communion with Him. It is He (and not ‘grace’) that we invoke in prayer and acquire through spiritual effort..‘For in the words of St Seraphim [of Sarov] “when the Spirit of God descends upon man and overshadows him with the fullness of His outpouring, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy because the Spirit of God turns to joy all that he may touch.”

‘All this means that we know the Holy Spirit only by His presence in us, the presence manifested above all in ineffable joy, peace, and fullness. Even in ordinary human language these words - joy, peace, fullness - refer to something which is precisely ineffable, which by its very nature is beyond words, definitions, and descriptions. They refer to those moments in life when life is full of life when there is no lack of and therefore no desire for anything, and this no anxiety, no fear, no frustration. Man always speaks of happiness, and indeed life is a pursuit of happiness a longing of life’s self-fulfillment. Thus one can say that the presence of the Holy Spirit in us is the fulfillment of true happiness. And since this happiness does not come from an identifiable and external cause as does our poor and worldly happiness, which disappears with the disappearance of the cause that produced it, and since it does not come from anything in this world, yet results in a joy about everything, that happiness must be the fruit in us of the coming, the presence, the abiding of someone who Himself is Life, Joy, Peace, Beauty, Fullness, Bliss. This Someone is the Holy Spirit.’
The miraculous event at Pentecost is a sign of what is available to us as Christians. The gift of divine wisdom, a gift of the Holy Spirit, is the end of all Christian education, and so ought to be incorporated into the formation of health workers too!
Treating the whole person
Given the profound unity of the human person, a single entity that is body, soul, and spirit and in which each aspect bound up with the other. There is no treating part of the person without treating the whole person, and a doctor’s treatment of the person is incomplete if it is not in accord with our desire for God.

This is about more than medical ethics. It is governed by the first assumptions of what the person is. A doctor may know all the practices of medicine, but he cannot know how to apply them properly if he doesn’t understand what makes a person free to choose happiness.

Getting the heart of the matter: the human heart used to be organ that symbolized the place where we are, as a person, the vector sum of all our thoughts, feelings and actions. Modern medicine treats it as a machine and represents it mathematically as a series of functions. This approach is good for treating heart disease, but it could be better if all this data was understood in relation to the well-being of the whole person. 
The ancient Greeks, it appears, had a greater grasp of this idea of the need for the harmony of the parts than the specialists of modern secular medicine. Their general mathematical theory of harmony and proportion began with the consideration of the beauty of things, and the realization that when we recognize that the relationship of the parts to each other is ordered to the whole and to its purpose we see it as both beautiful and good. So the consideration of what things are begins with the recognition of their beauty as a sign of their goodness. This applies to both mankind and creation. Greek medicine considered health to be the balance of the parts and ill-health, it was assumed, could be linked to an imbalance. An example would be their approach to the four ‘humors’ - yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, blood. They understood also the profound unity of the physical and spiritual, so they tried to consider how an imbalance of these humors might lead to an emotional imbalance. It is from this that we still have words in the English language related to mood or character such as bilious, phlegmatic, or sanguine (the last from “sanguis”, the Latin word for blood).

In regard to the moral life, Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (a book still studied in Catholic liberal arts colleges today), directly links virtuous behavior to a proportional relationship between extremes, citing arithmetic and geometric proportions. Many people read this and think that he is speaking loosely or figuratively, but he uses these terms with precise meanings in mind. (If you want to understand how, you can read of the mathematics of proportion and harmony in Boethius’s De Institione Arithemetica and De Institutione Musica, or my summarization of those principles in The Way of Beauty. These are also taught in my class offered by Pontifex University, called The Mathematics of Beauty.)

In considering the value of what the ancients did in the field of medicine, I am not suggesting that we adopt their scientific understanding of the human person which was inferior to that of the present day. Rather we should think about how this holistic approach to medicine can restore the humane to healthcare. Nor is this an argument for abandoning specialization in medicine. It does seem appropriate for a physician to primarily consider bodily health, but at the same, it seems reasonable to say that he cannot be a good physician without some awareness, at least, of how his specialization relates to the whole.

The modern doctor, for example, very often considers a chemical imbalance and its connection to unhappiness, and prescribes antidepressants. To do this without considering the possibility that a chemical imbalance might be the result of spiritual ills (which is different even from considering it to be a mental problem) could lead to a wrong diagnosis and treatment. Unhappiness, like physical pain, reveals a difficulty and on these occasions treating it with antidepressants might be akin to treating a broken bone with painkillers.

The Sacred Heart, by David Clayton, 20th century. Devotion to the Sacred Heart gives us an appreciation for Christ's humanity. Perhaps also, ironically, by meditation upon the symbol of the heart as the seat of the whole person, it can give us (including those of us who are in the medical professions) an appreciation for the spiritual aspects of man also.
Beauty and Health
Defining health in this way creates a direct connection to our perception of the beauty of the human person. In the traditional Western approach, beauty is the proper ordering of the parts of something in relation to each other, so that the whole is ordered to its purpose. We apprehend that beauty we are discerning this right pattern of the parts to each other and of the whole to its purpose.

Human beauty, therefore, could be defined as the radiance of health.

This definition speaks a deeper recognition of the human person than the superficial recognition of sexual attractiveness, which is a true but incomplete assessment of human beauty. To recognize a person as beautiful in this way - radiantly healthy - is to do more even than to grasp vital information about his health. It must be apprehended by one who appreciates that he is in relation to the person regarded, and is sympathy what those goals are. This is one who loves and who takes delight in the freedom of the other.

There is real value in doctors being formed to see us in this way. For all the blood-pressure readings or vital signs, it is their judgment, formed by experience will tell them in combination with this, just by looking, how healthy a person is. Such a doctor will not only have a heightened sense of when something is wrong, he will naturally look for the restoration of balance and have a sense of how to put the parts together again, so to speak. This requires each doctor and nurse to be, as well as practitioners of medical science, to be mystics and lovers who take an interest in, and ideally even know well the patient as a person.

An education that incorporates a formation in faith and a formation in the apprehension of beauty will increase the chances of the doctor being that person. The best health practitioners will be men and women who strive to be partakers of the divine nature and who can see with the eyes of purity, and so they are kings, priests, and prophets living the life of the Spirit (in common with all Christians). This is why medical training ought not to be separated from a spiritual formation in the Christian life. The good doctor will be a man of love attuned to the beauty of the human person in the way that a mother sees the beauty of her newborn baby.

The Lucca Madonna by Jan Van Eyck, Flemish, 15th century. It is the love of a parent for the child that allows her to see the beauty of a baby in a way that others don't. All people, by virtue of our humanity, are as beautiful as a baby, and it is our lack of love for others that restricts our ability to see it. Nevertheless, the recognition of the beauty of the whole person is an ideal that we can strive for, difficult though it is to achieve.
Clearly, this is asking a lot of our doctors and nurses and something that no training can ever guarantee for them. Medical exams can test knowledge of the information that might aid such a transformation, but they can’t measure the transformation itself. Nevertheless making medical students aware of the principles outlined, and offering them mystagogical catechesis and spiritual guidance directed to these ends should be a matter of policy and I would make it a priority over any other general education, even the traditional Great Books and Liberal Arts programs that American Catholic colleges and universities offer. This is, I suggest, the authentic role of our Newman centers on the university campuses and it is not beyond any of them. I believe that if they were offering this, the uptake would be from a pool far wider than simply medical students!

But let all those that seek thee be joyful and glad in thee, and let all such as delight in thee say always The Lord be praised. (Psalm 70 (69), 4)

Hippocrates (460-370 BC)

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