Perhaps once a year, if I’m lucky, I encounter a book that addresses a supremely important topic and does so in a supremely helpful way. Dr. Bob Cutillo’s Pursuing Health in an Anxious Age is such a book.
What are we to do with our bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made as they are, in times of illness, vulnerability, and death? That question has always been with us. But it’s becoming especially urgent for the citizens of the technological world—or, more baldly put, subjects of the technological empire—that holds out to us a vision of the good life buttressed by scientific knowledge but also demands from us ever more loyalty and obedience.
Medicine’s Two Faces
As a citizen of that empire, it feels almost subversive to observe that there’s something uniquely tragic about our age of modern medicine—tragic in the old sense of genuine greatness and good intentions turned awry by a fatal flaw.
In so many ways, medicine has delivered real cures and relief of suffering. It’s likely that I’m here to write this foreword, 48 years into my mortal life, only because of the direct and indirect contributions of medicine, starting with the vaccines that warded off many a childhood illness, the antibiotics that effortlessly cured many another, the anesthesia that has made minor but essential surgeries possible, and the more mundane benefits of dentistry and ophthalmology, just to name a few. And for the most part, the human beings who’ve prescribed and delivered these treatments have been people of intelligence, wisdom, patience, and kindness—bearers of the imago Dei at their best.
Yet in so many other ways, medicine falls ever short of our expectations that it’ll deliver us from the basic human condition, the morbidity and mortality that are our inheritance as fallen creatures. There’s an abiding tension between medicine’s achievements, which are tremendous; its promises, which at the limit are nothing less than “You shall be like God” and, above all, “You shall not surely die”; and its strangely persistent failure to bring the real flourishing that we long for, either for practitioners or for patients.
Medicine falls ever short of our expectations that it’ll deliver us from the basic human condition, the morbidity and mortality that are our inheritance as fallen creatures.
The increasingly crushing demands on many medical professionals, the dwindling time available for real encounter and empathy between physicians and patients, the costs that escalate year after year beyond many families’ (and perhaps, ultimately, our whole society’s) ability to afford, the heroic but expensive attempts to stave off the end of life that often lead to persons spending their final days enmeshed in a brutalist matrix of life-support machines—all of this seems to suggest something has gone wrong in the story of medical progress. And on the horizon are potentially catastrophic developments, including the possibility that our time will be remembered as the single brief moment when antibiotics actually were effective, before the rise of invulnerable bacteria that escaped from the hospitals (where they are already alarmingly entrenched) into the wider world.
Then there’s the question of what lengths we’ll go to, as our expectations from medicine continue to escalate, to keep the stream of medical breakthroughs coming. What if it turns out that creating, exploiting, and destroying human lives can provide us the raw material—from stem cells to entire organs—to cure the diseases, or even just satisfy the desires for enhancement, of the wealthy and powerful? Why and how will we resist that new and more sophisticated form of child sacrifice?
We’ll only realize the real promise of medicine, it seems to me, and resist its transformation into the most horrifying of idolatries, if we discover a new vision for being human, one that values vulnerability as much as control, community as much as autonomy, and mystery as much as certainty.
That is the way that Dr. Cutillo offers in this book, and one of the many great gifts of this book is that rather than simply critiquing our current medical culture (as I fear I’ve done in these paragraphs), he offers a positively beautiful account of how a human-scale practice of medicine can actually fulfill our deepest desires in ways that merely technological medicine, for all its grandiose promises, can never achieve. This is a vision of health that is far richer than mere test results or statistics—it’s embedded in community, informed by story and literature, and ultimately rooted in prayer and praise.
It’s crucial that Dr. Cutillo’s own story, and the perspective of this book, includes providing care to the most vulnerable, especially those who live in neglected neighborhoods in our own country. By constantly reframing his assessment of medicine through the experience of people whose lives do not fit any neat picture of affluent flourishing, he recalls all of us to a picture of health that goes deeper than you’ll find in carefully crafted pharmaceutical advertisements or expensive downtown gyms. By telling their stories of life and death, illness and health, with sympathetic attention, he invites us to pay deeper attention to our own stories, slowing down our frenzied pursuit of relief from every small distress.
What we see in these pages is the beginning of a better way for all of us, a kind of health we’ve almost forgotten is possible. One of my favorite phrases in the whole Bible comes when Paul is instructing his younger partner Timothy in how to pastor the wealthy in his congregation. He urges Timothy to lead them toward “the life that really is life” (1 Tim. 6:19 NRSV). If there’s a life that really is life, there must also be a health that really is health. If we read and heed this book, we may still be able to find it.