Excuse me, but I believe you’re sick

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 12.07.2019

“Medical beliefs” is a term that feels like an oxymoron. After all, at least in the West, medicine is a matter of science: drugs and discoveries are effected by brilliant researchers in white coats secreted away in laboratories and universities. By the supreme objectivity of science, you can be sure that new studies, having undergone rigorous tests and peer reviews, speak a demonstrable, verified truth. Surely, belief has nothing to do with it!

And yet medical beliefs are perfectly common, growing within national cultures like bacteria on a kitchen sponge. Americans treat handkerchiefs as medieval squares of killer fabric, and won’t even use the same tissue twice. Luxembourgers see air conditioning units as homicidal robots. Americans will read in dim light and eat a big meal before bed, while Luxembourgers, just reading that sentence, will mourn the slow demises of eyesight and digestion. Americans will venture into the chilly night calmly, while Luxembourgers dare not loosen their scarves lest ten seconds of night air infect them with a cold. Who is right?

There is, it must be said, something efficacious about Luxembourgers’ measured approach to wellbeing, though its precise merits are hard to pinpoint. Likely, many frivolities persist – having proper light while reading is perhaps more of a sensible pleasantry than a death knell for the eyeballs – but somewhere out of it all comes an annoying tendency towards health, at least in this American author’s begrudging observation.

Indeed, measured is the word: Luxembourgers are suspicious of that which alters body or environment, from medicine to machinery to weather. Antibiotics, which famously cure diseases, are spoken about in similar tones as poison. Computer screens strain the eyes. The sun brings cancer, the moon disrupts sleep, and cold rain is a merciless plague. Homes are thermoregulated only lightly, allowing external temperatures to seep inside, such that the body never receives a shock. Only months of endless discomfort.

Though many Americans are similarly cautious (or phobic), our culture differs in its broader focus on wellbeing. Our progressive movement of medical belief is largely about challenging, systematically, the village wisdom that warns against evils like exposing wet hair to winter weather or eating right before bed. As far as we’re concerned, such Old World beliefs belong on a shelf with witchcraft and bloodletting. If the most satisfying power of knowledge is debunking hoaxes, then ancient hoaxes topple the most magnificently – and we pine to see them fall. Our national consciousness would achieve pure elation if researchers at, for instance, the University of Michigan proved some persistent European health worry to be, beyond all doubt, imaginary.

American medical beliefs tend therefore to have a character of defiance. We are eager for new knowledge to erase, rather than complicate, old knowledge. Forget what those dusty elders said and give us some fresh facts, new truths – discoveries from this year, please! A new study says that drinking 25 cups of coffee a day poses no long-term health threats? Well, pour me 24 cups of coffee and let’s talk about it.

Cultures also show their colours in how they react to fully proven scientific knowledge. In the States, our more defiant style of binary thinking has had positive effects on, for example, rates of smoking. Cigarettes have long been recognized as lethal, and accordingly we have somehow minimized their popularity within our society in recent decades, a feat that becomes a point of national pride after we see Europe’s scads of smokers littering street corners. Cigarettes being irredeemably poisonous, the game has been simply to demonize them and, insofar as is possible, stamp them out.

However, on other medical battlegrounds the winds blow differently. Consider cholesterol, whose scientific assessment is similarly known and accepted but which poses Americans far more trouble: red meat and ice cream may be consumed, but only in correct dosages. The ambiguity is the problem, there being no defiance in eating responsibly. How can my habits stand out, if the game is merely to control myself? In contrast, veganism is as defiant as a diet can be: rather than dull and unglorious temperance, it offers a bold statement on lifestyle, health, and ethics, all in one shocking label. Unsurprisingly, veganism caught on early and deeply in the States, the prideful ululations of its disciples so familiar that jokes about it are commonplace:

Flight attendant: Oh my god! The captain and co-captain have both suffered heart attacks! Is anyone here a pilot?!

Vegan: I’m a vegan.

Of course Luxembourgers know the perils of smoking, and plenty of Americans are neither vegan nor obese, but each society’s relationship with medical knowledge hints at its line of approach. Luxembourgers’ measuredness is really a sceptical mood in which newfangled studies tend to mingle with inherited sense. Some stupid researchers from Whatever University say you can drink 25 cups of coffee a day? Forget it. Not after generations of wisdom have preached wariness of caffeine overindulgence. And speaking of indulgence, it isn’t just coffee: like many Europeans, Luxembourgers extoll the merits of wine, chocolate, and cheese… but only in appropriate doses. Might they be less averse to cigarettes because of this culture of moderation, which permits a few unhealthy things within a balanced lifestyle?

Americans, for our part, are more drawn to medical beliefs or health trends with a weighty, extreme quality to them. So much the better to adorn our personalities with. After all, our identities are at stake – as a nation of individuals, they always are – and you can’t put “I moderate my cholesterol intake responsibly!” on a t-shirt. Some ten years ago, avoiding gluten became an American fad, even among those without wheat allergies. Just like that, wheat came under fire. Wheat! No cake for me, please, I don’t eat gluten. Meanwhile, no study on earth could pry Europeans away from their bakeries, even if pastries were convincingly linked to instantaneous mortality. A new study says that pains au chocolat may cause spontaneous combustion? Too bad. I don’t believe that at all. But I do believe I’ll take two pains au choc, please, and a croissant, to go. Can I pay by card?

Jeffrey Palms
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