Dietrich von Hildebrand lived in the age of the Nazis, but his remarks were occasioned by a cultural anomaly that, almost a century later, has now become a firmly-established norm of culture. In fact, this, what von Hildebrand calls a “bad mental habit”, in an inversion that would not have surprised him, might even be the last moral law of our secular civilization, so that smoking, for example, is one of the few sins against which our culture cries out.
Disgust is sometimes associated with a certain vague fear of contagion, of infectious diseases one might catch from other people. In these cases of squeamishness, the stranger makes us shrink back as a possible carrier of germs. Of course, in dealing with persons who really suffer from some contagious disease, it is our duty to protect ourselves against infection as far as possible; for our health, too, is a talent given by God, of which we must make the most. But whenever a duty of charity requires that preoccupation to yield, it is charity that ranks supreme.
Apart from this obvious principle, what concerns us here is our duty of controlling the tendency to suspect all possible diseases in others, a suspicion which, with little or no basis in reality, serves unconsciously to encourage our inclinations towards fastidiousness and disgust. As long as there is no solid reason for it, we must not look upon our fellow man as a possible carrier of diseases, for this is a bad mental habit which hampers the free flux of love and fosters our tendency to egocentric self-isolation.
In an even more general sense, the exaggerated fear of illness constitutes a notorious form of unfreedom. There is no merit in neglecting our health, but our preoccupation with it should be kept in bounds by our confidence in God, and in this respect as in others we should fear above all the danger of self-centeredness. The hypochondriac with his imaginary diseases also presents an example of egocentric unfreedom. So long as there is no manifest ground for anxiety we should not waste our time with apprehensions concerning a possible deterioration of our health.
Nor should we allow ourselves to slip into that perspective of generalized fear in which one regards the ambient world primarily as a source of possible dangers to one’s health—the expression of a cramped anxiety about the safety of the ego, which strikes at the very root of freedom. To overcome this vicious evil, we must keep well aware of the truth that our lives rest in the hands of God: “My days are in Thine hands” (Ps. 30:16).
Dieterich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ
Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being my gadfly.