Don’t confuse the two. Don’t mistake the symptom for the disease, that is, don’t mistake the surface problem for the underlying problem.

Consider the problem of terrorism. Terrorism is a symptom when a ruler holds the military advantage while oppressing the people. In this case a fraction of the people will fight back and do so with the only means possible: hitting soft targets (since they don’t have the military advantage) to make the political/economical/military cost of oppression too high. One would consider the power structure of the country the disease and the terror the symptom.

Or consider a middle aged man, who is stressed, overweight and do not exercise. His first heart attack is a symptom of the underlying diseases which is his lifestyle.

In both cases one can imagine several responses.

For instance, in the case of terrorism one may increase military spending. This does not eliminate the disease rather it treats the symptoms. It is akin to the man in the second case getting a triple bypass and popping lipitor but otherwise not doing anything. Such solutions are frequently costly (invest in medical companies and arms dealers) and accomplish nothing aside from postponing the problem. While treating the disease is wiser, it is not smart to ignore the symptoms. In the former case, the support that holds up the government structure (typically foreign interests) should be eliminated. In the latter case, the man should change his lifestyle. Such changes are much harder because they require some maturity.
Even then, the problems will persist because they have lags. Terrorists will still exist for some time even though when the disease that spawned them has been cured. The man will still have symptoms of a previously poor lifestyle. Therefore treatment should focus both on curing the disease and treating the symptoms.

I try to cultivate the habit of asking myself whether I am healthy (not “diseased”). For instance, if I look at the part of my entertainment budget that goes to CDs and soda, I can see that it correlates inversely with my happiness. Whenver I am unsatisfied I spend more.
Conversely, when I’m fulfilled, I spend nothing. My entertainment spending is thus a symptom of something else, a fundamental underlying disease of priorities/actualization. Similar patterns can be observed in the way I eat. If I eat less fruits and vegetables, my need for stimulants go up. I crave more white sugar. Of course, drinking soda in that case, that is, treating the symptom, without getting some veggies inboard propagates the problem. Or consider exercise … the lacking mobility of being unable to bike 10 miles at will can be considered a lifestyle disease. Needing to get somewhere is (another) symptom. Hopping into the car is treating the symptom.

It is highly interesting to think deeply about how much — in a sense the percentage — of one’s life that is in that sense diseased and to which degree we spend real energy, physical, mental, and economical treating the symptoms. For instance, do we fly off on vacation to exotic locations because our real life is boring? Do we buy things because we are otherwise unfulfilled? Do we spend money on hobbies because our work is too one-dimensional?

The cost of such “diseases” can be extreme. Conversely, eliminating these “diseases” means that one’s expenses (not just monetary) becomes very low, ideally zero.

Another way of thinking of it is in terms of friction. How many things do you do that merely develops friction. A good example of friction is digging a hole and filling it up again. All that does is to produce waste. How many aspects of your job merely creates friction? How many aspects of your life? How often do you have to spend energy because something is resisting your happiness? And why is that something resisting? Who or what is resisting? Is it you?

See what I mean?

The good life is achieved by eliminating friction and by being healthy (in the sense above). In such cases, your job will not be resisting your wishes leading you to compensate in other ways e.g. by spending money in things and trying to convince yourself that this is why you work when you would rather not.

What is healthy?

Consider the way a child feels in his body. He wants to jump around. Almost can’t help himself. Do you see many adults doing that? Many indeed do not. They act as if moving was painful. Given the choice they would rather not get off the couch even much less jump around.

Or consider the way some … a few … people are intellectually curios while most are not. The former can not help themselves from trying to learn. They are mentally healthy. Learning is easy. Conversely, many would very much not like to think, especially if they have to change their mind about something to be able to think about it.

A diseased person or a diseased society is locked in certain ways and dependent on certain things like sugar, pills, status, awards, stuff, … to treat the symptoms.

A healthy person is free.

Originally posted 2009-02-06 17:00:07.