Recently, I taught my first upper-level course on the history of health and medicine in the United States. The course readings covered a broad base, both chronologically and thematically. The discussions that emerged from two of the assigned texts, however, really stand out in my memory.
“Frequently employed in both slave sales and medical jurisprudence, the term indicated an enslaved person’s overall state of health and, by extension, his or her worth in the marketplace….Soundness in its most basic sense concerned the health of a slave, measured in his or her capacity to labor, at the time of sale. Yet the definition of soundness included not only the present health of the individual but past and future health as well….Not limited to the physical body, the concept of soundness extended to mental and moral dimensions of slave health as well.” (Sharla M. Fett, Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations, p. 20)
“Neurasthenia was the characteristic illness of its day. The name derives from Greek and translates roughly to ‘lack of nerve energy.’…The illness typically struck urbanites, especially those men and women carrying on busy lives stretched thin by responsibilities to their families, communities, and jobs….The neurasthenia diagnosis provided an elastic, protean concept of sickness that allowed Americans to better understand and speak about the nature of their mental and physical ailments.” (David G. Schuster, Neurasthenic Nation: America’s Search for Health, Happiness, and Comfort, 1869-1920, p. 2-3)
In retrospect, I can see that these two texts in particular shaped the emergence of an unexpected theme in the course: a critique of both the concept and rhetoric of wellness that is so prevalent in contemporary American workplaces, including many college campuses. The McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign defines wellness as “a state of optimal well-being that is oriented toward maximizing an individual’s potential. This is a life-long process of moving towards enhancing your physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and environmental well-being.”
As the quotes extracted above highlight, there has long been an interest in safeguarding what we might call a more holistic view of health, one that encompasses the emotional and spiritual as well as the physical and cognitive. Historically, as Sharla Fett and David Schuster have demonstrated in their books, this concern with an individual’s health has not been the result of an interest in basic human rights and dignity or a cultural commitment to enriching the quality of one’s life. Much the opposite, this holistic view of individual health has been intent upon the maintenance of a productive labor force, whether we’re talking about enslaved people working on southern plantations or white middle class men dealing with the pressures of modern white collar wage labor. The experiences of these two groups could not have been more different, and comparing them was not the point of this post or my students’ discussion. Yet, in both cases, the medical establishment crafted definitions of health and disease centered on their ability to labor effectively. To be unsound or neurasthenic meant that you were somehow incapable of performing the role expected of you. There would be an examination, a diagnosis, and a treatment to restore your body or mind. Your recovery would be celebrated when you returned to work, whether in the cotton field or the managerial office (or stuck in the home, if you were a white woman, but that’s another issue, best demonstrated in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper). In short, in all of these cases, there was a clear correlation between health and productivity, one that reduced the individual to a body that was either productive or unproductive. And there was a great deal of anxiety about how to create the best environment and best conditions for those bodies to remain healthy and productive.
I’m not sure when it was exactly that my class first made a connection between our discussion of the-productive-body-as-healthy-body and the events promoting wellness on our campus. But at some point this language of wellness became shorthand of sorts as we discussed first Working Cures and then Neurasthenic Nation. Even as we recognized the immense differences between both of those subjects in relation to one another as well as in relation to our own situations, we also found the similarities in the rhetoric to be striking. Something about it irked us. Were we, too, just another generation of cogs in the capitalist machine?
These conversations with my students altered how I thought about wellness. In some sense, wellness already had become one more thing that I had to do. They say that wellness helps you reach your potential. Wellness makes you happier. And thinner. And more pleasant to be around. If I didn’t actively pursue wellness, then I was letting down my work community and my family. I had to make time for wellness so that the time I spent doing other things, like teaching and writing and grading and editing, would be more…productive. I started thinking that perhaps the pursuit of wellness wasn’t really in my best interest after all.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against wellness. I am very, very grateful that my campus puts a great deal of resources into promoting the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being of faculty, staff, and students. I appreciate being part of a community in which we encourage each other to thrive and succeed in all sorts of ways. I wish more employers in academia and beyond were so intentional in this practice. But I think my students were on to something. When the rhetoric of wellness becomes infused with that of productivity, such as when the justification for providing your workers with wellness benefits and resources revolves around improving their workplace performance or reducing health costs for employer-sponsored plans, or when magazines offer us checklists of things to do to improve our work day, such as taking a power nap or doing yoga at our desks, then I think we are on a slippery slope. Like the men and women enslaved on the plantations of the past, we would do well to remember that a truly holistic view of health is not one that measures individual output or what we contribute materially to our society. Instead, we should attend to physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual wellness simply because each individual matters. Period. Elizabeth Cady Stanton called this “the solitude of the self:”
“There is a solitude which each and every one of us has always carried with him, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea; the solitude of self. Our inner being which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced. It is more hidden than the caves of the gnome; the sacred adytum of the oracle; the hidden chamber of Eleusinian mystery, for to it only omniscience is permitted to enter. Such is individual life.”
Wellness, it seems to me, should be about nurturing this individual sense of self. It should not be about what we can give or produce, but simply about recognizing who we are. I am so happy that my students taught me this lesson.