In everyday Italian we say: “Salute!” (Bless you!) when someone we’re talking to sneezes or coughs. Until a few years ago it was also used as a form of greeting (rather recalling Latin language). My uncle, for example, who was a bit ‘old-fashioned’, always used to greet me like this: “Salute!” (Cheers!).
The experience of the last few months made us dwell on the meaning of this word in particular. What does ‘health’ (salute) mean? What exactly are we wishing to the person in front of us, the man, the woman, the child, the old man we meet, when we say ‘salute!’?
Maybe we wish him/her good appetite and sound sleep. No hospital? No injuries? Maybe we refer to his/her internal organs to be functioning properly? That he stays young and ‘fit’ for as long as possible? Or we wish him/her to meet almost no doctors? Or on the contrary, to meet as many as possible, precisely to stay healthy.
Are we referring to his/her biological body, or family and work, or a combination of the two? The way he/she dreams, hopes, thinks, wishes is part of his/her ‘health’?
For many years, I would say until the beginning of the 20th century, health was considered a sort of balance between one’s body, the external environment and one’s feelings. This balance was a personal matter. There was no such thing as an ‘objective’, scientific and neutral narration, nobody could tell it except for the person directly concerned. But above all, people close by, that is the environment (in the sense of people, things, places nearby) were elements of the story and therefore had the power to influence health. They not only had the ‘real’ ability to take care of that particular person, but also had the responsibility to do so.
It would be good to start from here to give a new meaning to the word ‘health’.
Do we still feel able to influence it? Are we able to really take care of it, to play an influential role in the (psycho)physical balance, in the personal story, of the person in front of us? And vice versa, do we feel that the people close to us are responsible and able to take care of us? Or is it only a professional doctor who can guarantee us that rigid and efficient integrity we call ‘health’?
The traumatic experience of not being able to stand by our sick and dead during the lockdown gave us a clue. We should start by asking ourselves, with courage: we talk about ‘traumatic experience’, but was it really so traumatic? Haven’t we been accustomed for a long time to isolating the sick and the dead away from our homes, our families, our lives? And haven’t we also removed our fragile, mortal part, the part that gets older every day, thus preventing the people we live with from taking care of us and preventing us from taking care of them? This confinement, this forgetfulness could be one of the main reasons why we are powerless to operate and to believe we are capable of effective action on health, school, the environment and everything else that affects our lives.
It is the right time to rethink the relationships we have with the body, with people and objects around us, to rediscover and appreciate the ‘beneficial disease’ of imperfection and aging that characterizes us as human beings. And from here try to learn and exercise the ability to care and with this the power to give a true and alive meaning to the world.