Susan Sontag among others described illness as a metaphor for what culture does to the individual, as much as what germs and cells do to us. Why do we speak of social maladies as plagues and cancers, much like “bad” weather and “evil” regimes? Our very language and imagination is permeated with illness, illness induced by culture, as R. D. Laing used to say.

I am not prepared to assume, as do some New Age advocates, that one brings about one’s illness, but when we consider the foods we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink — plus the stress of modern existence and an admixture of genetics and personality — we might well concede that we do indeed bring illness upon ourselves. Not as directly as a scientific equation or as obviuosly as a one-to-one cause and effect, of course. Not even individually, perhaps, but collectively. We plead that we have less control over these cultural products than we think, but we are obliged to exercise the control that we can.

One of Gotama Buddha’s first insights was the inexorability of illness as a form of suffering to which all humans are susceptible. Here, however, the insight was of an absolulte regarding the frailty of the body, not the predominance of culture over what we consume or is in our atmosphere. Every culture has had its equivalent of Paradise or a Golden Age which it has now forgotten, a time or place where sickness does not invade us, where happiness does not falter. To recover that sensibility — even as an exercise of imagination — is a useful element in determining for ourselves what Buddhism calls “right livelihood.”