Recently, I went to a type of picnic party with my fiance. Beyond the tasty treats of pizza and otter pops, the hosts had a selection of beers and alcoholic ciders available. Two hours before we left, she had a cider and I had one of the light beers. We were well fed and plenty of time passed to metabolize the alcohol before we left. I drove and there was no question about my capability to do so. On our way home we came across what appeared to be an accident. We couldn’t quite see what was going on, but being a medical doctor, she was eager to jump in and help. I stopped her.

When someone comes into work sick, i.e. coughing, puking, or phlegmy, there’s no question about sending the person home. You can easily guess the reasons. We send sick people home to protect others from disease and to protect the person from getting worse. In any case, we create distance between the sick and healthy. The formalities of the situation have become commonplace.

When someone is bereaved i.e. they lost a loved one, are going through a divorce/break-up, or other major dramas of life, we treat the person differently. We give them “space” or distance. This could be in the form of time-off or smaller work-load. Oddly, the same can be said about major positive health conditions like being pregnant or adoption; yet, we like to think these people more approachable. In any case, the person is treated with a similar approach as if they had the flu. We speak with a softer tone, choose our words more carefully, and try our best not to add more grief than necessary.

What does all this have to do with me stopping my fiance from potentially saving someone’s life? Simple, what we do to protect someone from sickness or grief can be said the opposite. Pointing out someone’s limited abilities due to illness or physical/emotional state can be used as a blaming tool. Her abilities would be questioned only because of a perceived physical “condition”.

Let’s say we drove up and she jumped out of the car to help. The person in need of attention dies, or their condition gets worse, either due to causes from the accident or complications outside her control. Either way, she gets blamed. It takes one person to ask, “did you try, within the best of your abilities, to save this person?”. She’ll say, “yes”. All anyone has to do is now question the meaning of “best of your abilities” in order to question her validity as a doctor. The fiance, understood this immediately and without question. She said, “pull over”. I replied, “no, you had alcohol today”. She responded with, “you’re right, thank you. Let’s hope that they are getting the help they need” and we left the situation in the past. Simple enough rhetorical situation.

I wasn’t quite done with the seemingly meaningless moment. Thinking about those few seconds, I realized that someone’s ethos is a direct correlation to their well-being or condition and affects their validity. How we think about someone’s physical or mental health is a major part on how believable we consider the person to be. Movies have a way to bring this common behavior into question and they are easy-enough to example for my point. I’m thinking of the 2012 Denzel Washington movie, Flight where an inebriated pilot mitigates a bad landing for a 727 passenger plane. In the movie, the pilot’s abilities are not only questioned negativity, but the movie is suggestive to positive validity as well. You can start listing off tons of movies of the kind, Radio, A Beautiful Mind, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Really the list goes on-and-on, but as much as those movies have some health obstacles to overcome and bring to light a protagonist’s ethos, they are only suggestive of the true reality of everyday rhetoric.The truth, your ability to perform any task will be under scrutiny due to your well-being.

I don’t have much advice for how to combat the issues surrounding health and ethos. As a disabled person myself, I combat this problem all the time. Telling people of my disability only creates that “space” as I described earlier; otherwise, people tend to treat you like you are about to fly a plane drunk, hesitant and fearful. I often hear phrases like, “No I can do that, don’t bother yourself” or “Don’t worry yourself with this, I got it”. I like to think that those people mean well, but I know well enough that they have questioned my abilities not only to perform, but question my ethos when I say, “I can help”. Whether they are conscious about their criticism or not, it is difficult to trust their intentions.

If you’re on the other side of all of this, think about “why” you find it difficult to believe someone with health concerns. Think about what they are attempting to communicate and if their condition has anything to do with their validity or ability. Do you even know that they have a disability? Ask yourself if you have some form of prejudice or if your disagreement is, as well, valid. I know this is difficult, but it’s worth a moment of consideration.

I know this is all tricky and I’m still trying to understand how health comes into rhetorical situations, but I know that there are plenty of good rhetoricians thinking about this constantly. In the meantime, thank you for reading. I hope that you gleaned something useful.