We have made such a cult of lethargy and inertia in this country that it is killing us. Our children are so fat their organs start to fail and they are diabetic. Our elders are ravaged by heart disease, joint problems and chronic pain. Our young men and women, who ought to be at their peak of health as strong workers and active parents, are becoming larger and slower with every passing year.
Our bodies know this is wrong. As our nutrition declines and our activity dwindles, our neurochemistry responds to these abuses as if to poison, shutting down neurotransmitters that create feelings of contentment and excitement and enjoyment. The correlation between lifestyle disease and mental health has been pointed out again and again, and yet we allow ourselves to hurtle down the path of physical and emotional ruin simply because we can’t bear to deny ourselves the questionable pleasure of the path of least resistance.
What is wrong with us? Why do we crave, at times to the point of suicide, to spare ourselves any exertion, any change or progress? Why, as a culture, are we hellbent on reaching utter passivity rather than actualization? How do we ignore our own increasing pain and unhappiness in order to continue living mindlessly, drifting and psychically comatose? It’s isn’t leisure, a welcome interlude away from work. It isn’t abundance, whose hallmark is variety. It’s purgatory–narrow, dull and eternally predictable. Boring.
I believe one of the most basic motivators of human behavior is fear. We cringe away instinctively from things with the potential to harm us. This isn’t always a bad thing; healthy fear keeps us safe and prevents complacency.
But in this world we live in, unhealthy fear is breeding everywhere. In the media, tales of disaster–bloody or psychological or both–are available at all hours of the day and night, the true ones often more horrifying than the fictional. We are reminded daily both in our public and private lives that our families are unstable, our livelihoods at risk, our safety nets full of holes. These fears make it very difficult to maintain perspective, and especially to make sound decisions. With all one’s energy directed towards keeping a white-knuckled grip on reality, how can one be expected to feel confident in oneself, to start out in new directions, to change and adapt to gain desired ends? When every negative is presented and thus perceived as a threat, how can we distinguish false threats from true?
The answer is that we can’t. Confused and afraid, we cling to what is comforting and non-risky…bland, sweet foods, pastimes that require only sitting and being entertained, opinions and even dreams that require little introspection and even less curiosity. Because we are conditioned to fear what we don’t know, we take pains to ensure that we don’t explore new ground or question the old. When circumstances align to hurt us, we retreat further into our cocoons of denial and repeat the old self-damaging behavior at breakneck speed and intensity until we regain our comfort zone.
This is the opposite of being human. We are born with ambition–to move, to change, to learn, to understand. We are born to see challenges and to overcome them rather than be overcome ourselves. We are made to look beyond today into the options of the future, and to embrace those options and our role in bringing them to fruition. Yet we don’t do this, and I believe this is the underlying cause of the public health crises in our country.
We are, by and large, a nation of cowerers, as eager to re-affirm our commitment to the status quo as if we could count on it to protect us during the next recession, the next drought, the next banking scandal. And the cowering in our public life reflects an inner cowering that drives, in my opinion, the epidemic of lifestyle-related illness and disability. Instead of blaming doctors and schools and parents and TV, let’s figure out how to encourage people to be unafraid, to trust in themselves, to see the need for change and to act on it.
Then, and only then, will the tide of public health turn. When people are unfrightened enough to step outside their comfort zones, to listen to their own minds and their own bodies instead of blindly subscribing to any voice louder than their own, then they will be free to make the decision to take care of themselves and their children instead of waiting for the other shoe to drop. When people feel empowered socially and politically to reach their full potential, they will take ownership of their health the same way they take ownership of their votes, their education and their work ethic.
So how do we bring this about? By marginalizing those who seek to control others by fear. By teaching our children and our adults to think for themselves, to question and to evaluate critically what they hear and see and believe. Arm our citizens with solid education, and an environment of free speech. Require them to spend time with persons of different races, gender, socioeconomic class and religion. Encourage them to ask questions. Give every American a working knowledge of anatomy, physiology, nutrition, sleep hygiene and lifetime fitness skills. And the raise the minimum wage so that a person can make ends meet on 40-hour weeks and have time to exercise, cook healthful meals, rest and spend time with family and engaged in his or own interests.
Want to make people healthier in this county? Treat them as your comrades, your fellow-marchers in the challenge of approaching old age and extinction with grace and courage. Don’t frighten them or threaten them or bully them. Make sure they have affordable, local sources of nutritious food, safe neighborhoods to walk or bicycle in, work policies that allow regular doctor visits and health coverage that protects them from losing their life and their livelihood over a single illness and actively promotes health literacy and preventive care, including complementary medicine where appropriate.
The health care crisis is the effect of decades of playing upon the fears of the disempowered by the oligarchy of those trying to consolidate power into their own hands. Reverse that consolidation and you will have a population taking charge not only of their health, but of their families, their livelihoods, their schools, their legislatures and their economy large and small. We are paying a staggeringly high price in lost productivity, wasted health services and increased costs simply because we refuse to allow people the personal power necessary to motivate them to own the care of their own bodies. This is a sign that immediate change is needed, not in the health care system alone, but in the entire apparatus of political power distribution and information dissemination. Change these to reflect unilateral concern for the welfare of those most likely to be ignored or even harmed, and these very souls will be the ones who first make the changes necessary to enjoy both physical and emotional health and to making vibrant, creative lives in society at large.