I was in CVS with my girlfriend the other day. She has been fighting a cough lately that has been getting worse. We were standing in line to buy the obligatory off-brand of Vicks and Dayquil. While waiting, she began having another coughing fit. The sound that she produces sounds a lot like a person who just had the wind knocked out of them. Her face goes red, her eyes tear up, her tongue sticks out–it is awful and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
People looked uncomfortable, it was loud and unpleasant to hear and more than anything just made me sad to watch.
Once it was over I took the medicines from her and told her she could go wait in the car, and I would buy the medicine for her. She walked out and I looked down at the two items in my hand, both of which made similar claims: relieve coughing and last long. The BudgetQuil had the bonus claim that it would relieve drowsiness.
Looking at both products I began to realize: these are for symptoms only.
There is nothing in either of these products for healing or addressing underlying health issues that might be causing the cough. They are only for symptoms: coughing and tiredness.
I remember talking with my grandmother when I was in high school. She sat down at the dinner table with a fist-full of pills that she had just dumped from her plastic blue pill calendar that seems to be standard-issue for everyone over sixty. There were at least 8-10 pills: blue, yellow, white, round, square, gel, capsule.
I asked her what they were for. She started with one, “This is for my high blood pressure.”
She grabbed another, “But that makes me tired so I take this.”
“That sometimes gives me headaches, so I take this one,” she showed me a third pill. And so it went. In the entire stash she showed me three pills that were actually treating issues. The rest were treating the side-effects and symptoms that the other pills gave her.
We are so focused on symptoms that we often call them the problem. For instance, my girlfriend would say she has “a cough,” but honestly the cough is a symptom of something– a virus, allergies, or something else.
The lines can get blurry between what is the problem and what is a symptom of that problem.
Working and living in an area like ours, you see similar attitudes toward issues of poverty and community development.
First, you have many groups who want to do symptom-based work. Clean-up Days where folks pick up trash, paint the trim on some houses and plant flowers, housing ministries where homeless people are expected to become fully functioning once they have a roof over their heads, or assembly line food kitchens are only addressing symptoms– not the underlying problems.
Second, you wrestle with the most important question: what is the sickness? Is it poverty, or is poverty a symptom? Is it self-esteem or is that a side effect? Is it lack of education? Is it lack of skills? What is sickness what is symptom?
Is it okay to just treat symptoms?
Should we only focus on sickness?
Of course, the answer to both is no. A doctor isn’t much of a doctor if he gives you a fever-reducer and doesn’t pay attention to the infection that is causing the fever. Nor would you like a doctor who set a broken bone without giving you anything for pain. You have to have both.
But ultimately, we need solutions. We need sickness-based treatments. Sickness curing is much more a long-term and intensive work than symptom relief.