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Word games.

Only when you're ill do you recognise the near-miracle of health. Look at us! These infinitely complex machines, sleeping, waking, eating, walking, breathing, thinking - all unaided. When one small part packs up temporarily, this feat of mind and body becomes radiantly clear. If you have a sore throat, life without a sore throat suddenly seems like a luxury and freedom too delicious, too impossible, to entertain. Of course, as soon as you're well again, you forget: health is the easiest thing to presume.

Watching someone you love permanently lose their health is a different sensation altogether - seeing their body fail them, give up, and their mind grudgingly adjust to that reality. Your own health feels embarrassingly conspicuous, even ostentatious. It is painfully obvious how easily and unthinkingly you can do things. The world contracts around the sick, making every task monumental: pulling on socks, eating breakfast, going to the bathroom - they all become tortures coloured with humiliation.

My father, when proposing a toast, would never say "Cheers!" but instead lifted his glass and declared, "Your health!" It's the French way, I suppose: "Santé!" - a celebration of health lasting this long, in hope for its continuation, but also an acknowledgement that, inevitably, it is
frail and will fade.

Health is much more than not being ill. It is living at the peak of both your body's and mind's capability. It's all, as ever, in the word: health comes from hælþ, meaning "wholeness, a being whole, sound or well". Health is a state of fullness, of completeness. And it explains that feeling of absence or lack or disintegration when you're unwell; the sense that you're not quite the person you were.

It's fitting, then, that our National Health Service is called by that name - serving the nation's health, keeping us whole, as individuals, but also together, until we inevitably start to fall apart. It is the promise that makes the NHS what it is - for all its flaws, in principle it's there for the long haul and will care for the whole of you as its duty. Perhaps we can have the decency to do the same by it and keep it whole, complete, healthy.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?