“If You Haven’t Got Your Health, You Haven’t Got Anything:” Chronic Illness and the Need to Recognize Intrinsic Value

“If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” I encounter the phrase in all sorts of places–TV shows, vitamin adds, friend’s comments. Though seldom the intention, it can be a pretty crappy message for those of us who are ill and do not have our health, that we have nothing. 

It’s not the only place we encounter this message, of course. Dominant Western culture routinely places numerical value on human lives from what we might cost to what we might produce. We are acculturated into seeing our value in terms of things we do and our accomplishments. I was no exception. While I was doing my PhD, I was also publishing as much as I could, applying for future grants, and presenting at conferences. It didn’t seem like measuring my worth to me at the time, because it wasn’t particularly financially lucrative. I was making a contribution to my field, I told myself. Furthering an analysis of social justice in education. This was worthwhile work, I told myself, and I believe that it was. But I had a few things mixed up. I didn’t realize until I couldn’t do any of it for a long time that seeing the work as worthwhile had become intertwined with how I saw my own value. And I already was worthwhile, whether or not I made contributions to the literature. 

That’s the thing about chronic illness, it really brings us face to face with how we’ve drawn our sense of how we value ourselves… usually because we don’t have access to it in the same way anymore. This is really, really rough. Most folks with chronic illness are in torture levels of pain most, if not all, of the time. If we drew our sense of being worthwhile from work, we generally can’t work in the way we did. If we drew it from our independence, we may need help with everyday self-care and maintenance. It challenges every source we may draw from. 

One of the really hard ones for me was my active way of life. I loved cycling commuting, I loved going hiking in the woods. I loved swimming in fresh water. Connection to nature is so nourishing for me and living with least harm to the planet, a core value. I can’t live in the way that I used to. I need a car to not be housebound. I’m writing about these losses just to say that I get it, the grieving is real. 

I’ve tried to re-evaluate the sources I draw from. I’ve made lists. Without my health I have:

Always having intrinsic worth.
  • Love and connection to my wife, our dog, and our cat
  • A sense of awe in nature
  • Compassion and care for my friends
  • A sense of silliness, a cultivation of goofiness 

While these can help me make a conscious move away from accomplishment oriented worth and toward valuing relationships, it did not go far enough. What about the days that illness makes me cranky and feeling disconnected? When I am stuck in bed? I am am working on drawing a sense of being complete in my breath. In the act of breathing. I am having more days where I attempt to sip tea slowly and know that in those moments, I’m already enough. 

If you are grieving losses, I want to offer this: we are more than how we draw our sense of belonging, our sense of value. You are not your work, your value is not your work. You are always, already worthwhile. Without your health, you have something. You have intrinsic value. 


Having value in the act of breathing.