Moral & Immoral Illness

by Jeff Costello, November 16, 2011

When I was diagnosed with throat cancer, I read up on alternative treatments, of which there are many. Somehow I had a strong intuitive sense that eating grapes or drinking tons of carrot juice was not going to fix me. I did wind up drinking a lot of raw vegetable juice after a friend sent me a machine to make it with, figuring it couldn't hurt and besides, I was unable to swallow anything much for quite a while there. Turns out, it was “Bear” Owsley who told me via email from Australia that if I didn't go into radiation right away, I was “a goner.” It would be terrific to meet and talk with someone who beat fourth stage cancer by alternative or natural means. No luck so far.

I'm no stranger to alt-medicine and diets, and do not suspect anyone who doesn't eat cheeseburgers of being a communist, wimp, un-American, etc., any more than I regard vegetarians as sissies. In 1968, roommates and I did a strict macrobiotic diet for a while — a shock to the American palate and digestive system for sure, and impossible to find if you travel in Freeway America. Imagine my amused chagrin when I learned that Georges Osawa, who devised the diet, was a whiskey-drinking chain smoker.

And when, exactly, did smoking become a matter of moral judgment? When did smokers become “bad” people? Marijuana smoke stinks, too, and how about second-hand smoke from a joint? Is that good for the children? Or is pot smoking righteous, where tobacco is not?

In all these ensuing years, I've watched different ways to eat become moral issues with religious dogmatic overtones. What one eats has become one more way to judge oneself superior to others, for many reasons. So many choices… and seven billion other humanoids on the planet — a whole lot of people to be more righteous than. It's a tough job. There are those who believe strongly that they are superior to their situations. If that is so, why the situation?

“Are you vegetarian?” asked the young man behind the counter at the local deli when I asked for the lentil soup.

“No, but sometimes I don't feel like eating meat.” He gave me a sample of the beef brisket; it was okay but not so easy to chew for one with my dental history.

The guy behind the counter was keenly aware, here in Marvelous Marin, of holier-than-thou eaters. Despite the fact that his deli occupies a corner of a “convenience” store operating on the 7-11 model, he makes sure to have vegetarian and vegan choices. But the assumption that someone ordering lentil soup was vegetarian was interesting. Owsley, for his part, ate only meat and was as furiously dogmatic about it as the most committed vegan or raw food fanatic.

The original immoral illness was the kind you got for doing it. And the original natural healers were accused of being witches. Then, we got AIDS as heavenly retribution for homosexuality, and Hurricane Katrina as God's punishment for immoral behavior in New Orleans. Too many oysters dripping with butter and cream? Why not Las Vegas, “Sin City”? Too much money for God to mess with.

My cancer was diagnosed and treated in Madison, Wisconsin. When I asked the doctor for probable cause, he quickly said, “smoking and drinking.” Okay. I'd done lots of that. Immoral behavior again. But later on, I did some research on radon and found that the Madison area was high on the radon emissions scale. As Fats Waller famously said, “One never knows, do one?”

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