Much as I enjoy ranting about the need to empower people politically and socially, the real challenge in addressing our national health care situation doesn’t lie in identifying the problem (it’s not rocket science, after all) but in solving it. While policy wonks and task forces empretzel themselves wrestling with making a better, cheaper, more inclusive system, the rest of us need to start changing the landscape in which that system will function. We need to change the way we think of our bodies and our health, and then to change the way we treat ourselves and each other to reflect the respect we have for these miraculous, self-aware electrochemical flesh-machines that make us real in time and space.
The first step is to understand that doing what is healthy for our bodies–feeding them, exercising them, cleaning them–is an instinct that we share with all living things. Life itself depends upon it. When we choose otherwise we are contradicting an imperative that drives us at the molecular level to continue our existence.
This is where it gets complicated for those of us who think consciousness, free will and a soul are also part of being a person, because satisfying those things does not always align with the overarching biological imperative. We seek truth, beauty and justice as well as food and water. We hold convictions that may matter more to us than our physical health, and we experience emotions that may be powerful enough to blind us to our physiological needs. An added complication is that health of our bodies directly affects the quality and direction of our inner life, in ways which may be too subtle to notice unless we are aware of the signs.
So how do we find balance? How do we detach enough from our internal life of emotions, thoughts and beliefs to give our bodies what they need? How do we nurture our bodies so that they feed our inner life instead of draining it? How do we learn to value ourselves highly enough that we lavish the same time and energy on our own bodies and minds that we do on the people and causes and goals that matter most to us? This is the challenge that faces all of us as we approach the problem of health care in America; before we can find solutions, we must acknowledge the profound challenges and the near-infinite variety of variables involved in motivating human beings to do genuinely positive things for themselves.
Here are some techniques to open that internal dialogue and begin the journey. Take your time with these, let them ripen. A month or so should do it.
Journal the relationship between body and mind. Take a few minutes each day to note how well you took care of your health (diet, exercise, rest) and describe your emotional state. Try not to judge, focus instead on accurate observation. Note any patterns or connections you discover. You’re establishing a baseline from which to explore further.
Look as clearly as you can at your emotional health. On the whole, are you unhappy? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Confused? Exhausted? Any or all of these may be making it harder for you to think about improving your health. What can you do to reduce these issues in your life and increase your available energy? Your mind is where motivation for change is born and is sustained. Knowing its ups and downs, monitoring its comfort and figuring out how to overcome its resistance will be critical elements of the changes you’re getting ready to make.
Get a check-up. Have your doctor look you over, check your blood pressure, blood chemistry and weight. Discuss the medications you take and make sure you understand the necessity for each one. Bring up any questions you have or any new symptoms you have noticed and keep asking until you feel you have been heard and answered. Find out what he or she feels are the most important changes you could make to improve your health.
Educate yourself about optimum health. What does it look like? What do healthy people eat? How do they exercise? How much sleep do they need? Don’t be intimidated by the vast array of contradictory information out there. Focus on the recommendations promoted by national government and medical organizations at first. As you become more fluent in investigating these issues, you will learn to distinguish reputable, research-based information from unfounded and unreliable resources.
Let’s say you’ve completed all of the above. How much time did it take for you to do all this? Was it hard to fit it in between job and family responsibilities? Did you find yourself tempted to postpone it or even stop altogether? Now consider the millions of Americans facing greater obstacles than your own, be they economic, educational, cultural or physiological. What must be done for them? How can we encourage ourselves and each other to invest time and energy in treating our minds and bodies with attention and respect? Before any policy can be effective, before any system can work, we need to start this ball rolling by embracing the necessity of treating ourselves well, and then reach out to our families and communities to help them do the same.
More to come about turning the tide on our own wellness and making it easier for others to do the same.