This week, the US presidential election has taken a turn that just doesn’t sit right with me. Disclaimer: I have strong opinions about this election, but I will do my best to keep this post focused on the topic of this blog. Please, share your opinions with me in the comments section.
Trump’s campaign has been raising questions about Clinton’s health for a while, and now that she is being treated for pneumonia, many Clinton opponents are seizing on this idea that she is unhealthy as an argument against her candidacy for the presidency. Meanwhile, there is much controversy surrounding both candidates’ medical records. Clinton has already released extensive medical records, and both candidates have released statements from their personal doctors attesting to their overall health. Trump was supposed to release his medical records on the Dr. Oz show this week, but has apparently backed away from that at the last minute. As Clinton takes a few days off the campaign trail to recover from pneumonia, the media continues to obsess over both candidates’ health and medical records, and recent polls indicate that many Americans have opinions about each candidate’s physical fitness.
All of this begs the question, what is the connection between health and strength? In our culture, does the presence of any sickness whatsoever disqualify someone from public office, or at least from our highest elected position? Can you be president and be “unhealthy” or live with illness?
I understand the basic premise that sickness that makes it difficult or impossible for someone to work would be an obstacle for the presidency, because the president needs to be able to work virtually 24/7/365. But I take issue with the concept that illness negates strength, or somehow makes someone weak or unqualified for an important job. I worry that negative views of Clinton’s pneumonia extend into public opinion of all public figures when they are temporarily sick, or even all people who live with chronic illness.
The irony here is that so many people in our culture also immediately use words like “strong” or “brave” to describe people who live with significant chronic illnesses. How many times have you heard someone with cancer or another life-threatening illness called a “fighter” or held up as a model of strength and courage for others? People tell me all the time that I am strong, and while I do agree with them, I don’t think it’s for the same reasons. They probably think I am strong because I don’t view my illness as a reason to give up on my life, because I keep going through it all. In fact, many of these people probably think I am strong simply because I continue to wake up every morning and live my life. They say things to me like, “I couldn’t possibly handle it the way you do,” or “I don’t know how you do it, you’re so strong.” Honestly, living with chronic illness is just the same as living without it, you just live your life every day. How do I do it? I take it one moment at a time and put one foot in front of the other. Does this make me strong by default? I don’t think so, I think strength means something more substantive than that. I think I am strong because I work a demanding job, do a lot of household management, have strong opinions about many issues, and don’t let people take advantage of me. I think I am strong because I have a master’s degree and a bachelor’s from a top-ranked women’s college (Smithie for life!). I think I am strong because I take a stand on social and political issues, and advocate for chronic illness and cancer research and patient support. I would like to be respected for my strength because of these accomplishments and actions, rather than from the mere fact of having chronic illnesses. I don’t want strength that comes from automatically ticking a box. I want the strength that I earn.
So when we call people strong simply for having a chronic illness, and also call a presidential candidate weak for having a temporary, treatable condition, how can we possibly make sense of sickness and strength? This is so jumbled and contradictory, these mixed societal messages. I don’t think I’m the only “sick” person out there who finds all of this disingenuous and hypocritical, who distrusts the societal message of “strong fighters” with chronic illness because at root, our culture really harbors such negative views of illness.
Does any form of sickness mean someone cannot be smart, capable, or a good leader? If working so hard that you contract pneumonia at age 68 means that you’re not qualified to lead the country, then what does that mean for the millions of Americans who have chronic illnesses purely by chance, not through any lifestyle choices or personal decisions? (At the same time, who cares how someone gets a chronic illness? The only attention paid to causes should be to find early detection methods and cures.) Are those of us who live with significant illnesses relegated to one of two lonely camps: either you brought it upon yourself and should be ashamed; or the best you can hope for is to be a saintly icon of superficial strength, excluded from work or any activities other than sitting around being inspirational? I, for one, refuse to accept any of this.