Food for Thought

Let’s think about food. Yum. Good stuff, isn’t it? Gives us energy, rebuilds our tissues, fuels the myriad of chemical and electrical processes that we call life. Not only that, it plays to our sensorium, pleasing not only our tongues but our nostrils, our eyes and even our ears…sizzling fajitas, anyone? Our cultural identity is intimately entwined with food, our memories of childhood and family resonate with aromas and flavors from the table. Food is our favorite symbol of comfort, abundance and safety; is it surprising that we eat too much or too little when we feel uncomfortable, deprived or afraid?

We’re riding the crazy train with food in this country, and it’s because we have convinced ourselves that our emotional satisfaction depends on food. Instead of selecting our meals the way we select our cars—for value, performance and elegance—we stuff our bodies with the tastes and flavors that soothed or cheered us when we were babies: bland, soft sweets and salty, greasy savories. Instead of eating to satisfy our bodies’ needs for nutrients and energy, we use food like a mood-altering drug to make us happier, calmer, more relaxed.

These emotional needs are very real, more immediately pressing to us than our own physical requirements. And the urge to meet them with food is legitimate, to a point. Sweets elevate our moods, fat carries delicious, distracting flavors over our tastebuds and into our nostrils. In an earlier time when food was more scarce and the ability to overindulge rarely presented itself, these impulses did not interfere with healthy eating patterns, and drove us to supply the body with vital nutrients.

In our current environment, however, food is available at every turn, and the cheapest and easiest to prepare is the least nutritious. Our environment no longer limits what we eat or how much, and our instincts—to gorge ourselves blindly when we encounter comfort foods because we don’t know where or when we’ll find more—are leading us astray. With due respect to instinct, we need to make our relationship with food a conscious one, based on real understanding of our needs.

Food can meet certain needs perfectly. It gives us fuel for brain, muscles and metabolism. It provides nutrients for building tissues, driving chemical reactions and responding to injury or disease. It can arouse memories by triggering senses of smell and taste, and can evoke pleasure through every sense. Food can even catalyze social and political change, as it is the primary economic necessity for every group of humans on the planet.

What food can’t do is make us happy, and we need to realize that right now. We are the victims of cellular biology that took millennia to develop, which tells us that our sorrow or fatigue or crankiness are the result of perennial semi-starvation and that if we could just eat until we were sated we’d feel better. Let’s not be fooled! In reality, while our bodies may very well be signaling us to provide more of what they need, we must be canny in assessing those messages. What are the odds that we are really starving? And if we are, isn’t it more likely that we’re deficient in healthy nutrients than in sugar, fat, starch and salt? We need to learn to listen to our bodies in light of what we know is healthy for us, and to decode those messages wisely.
Our bodies are designed to eat whole foods: fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, meats, fish, eggs, dairy. They have no idea what to do with chemical preservatives and additives, or with foods that have had essential components removed, like white flour and sugar. So we can start by filling our kitchens with the stuff our bodies recognize and thrive on. Grains should be whole (whole wheat, stone-ground cornmeal, oats, brown rice) and fruits and veggies bright-colored and fresh or frozen (canned has too much salt and too few nutrients). We can cook without meat a couple of days a week, or even with no animal products at all. We can make a big pot of bean/split pea/lentil soup in the crock pot and try flavoring it with garlic, wine and herbs instead of ham. Or go Latin with roasted chile and lots of cumin and oregano.

Sure, time is short, we’re all stressed, and it takes more time to cook real food than to eat from a box. But step back a minute and think what’s at stake…who has time for diabetes, heart disease, obesity? Isn’t it better to make these changes now and enjoy the rewards for years to come? So let’s keep it simple and start with small changes. Ditching soda in favor of water or unsweetened tea? Yes! Replacing chips, cookies and candy in the pantry with fresh fruit, nuts and yogurt? Absolutely! buying a loaf of wholegrain bread for toast and sandwiches? Hooray! Our bodies crave this stuff, let’s deliver it!

A word to the politically-minded and the frugal: by filling your kitchen with whole, plant-based foods, you are keeping money in your own pocket and out of the hands of the gigantic business conglomerates that control so much of this nation’s wealth. You’re taking back your freedom to feed yourself and your family what nature intended for them, and not what the TV advertisers and marketing focus groups have decided would be most profitable. You’re casting your vote at the cash register for the kind of food you want available for your children’s future. Buy organic, or at your local farmer’s market or community farm, and you’re supporting a vision of affordable, independently-produced local food. Every step counts.

A glance at the headlines reveals that we are a nation of tired, frightened, often unhealthy people who could use a lot more TLC than we’re getting. We need to stop throwing food at our anxiety and stress, and start comforting ourselves in ways that heal. Feeding ourselves well is the most profound self-nurturing we can do, the most fundamental way of affirming our worth in the world. We all deserve that, and it’s within our reach.

©Mary Braden 2013

Hymn to Middle Age

I didn’t expect to be running half-marathons at 44, or going back to graduate school, or to be working two jobs that I really love, or to be embarking on my 4th marriage to a man who is an amazing partner and friend.  I didn’t expect I’d be so enamored with my teenagers, so excited about new knitting and cooking projects, so opinionated about politics and social justice, so involved with my friends.  I thought middle age would be, well, dull!

It is not dull.  Maybe it’s because I’ve already made a lifetime’s worth of mistakes and survived, maybe it’s because death is a thousand times more real to me now that it has touched my friends and family so often, maybe it’s because I have finally learned that judging people is way less rewarding than pursuing my own interests, who knows?  But here as I approach my 45th birthday at a full gallop, I am happier, more energetic, more fully myself than I have ever been, and I am stunned with gratitude and amazement every time I think about it.

I should have listened to my mother when she told me that life begins at 40.  I bet I gave her the same eye-rolling, forehead-smacking disbelief that my kids now give me.  But she was right!  Although I am enormously influenced by my parents and my upbringing, I have tested (and downright violated) those principles often enough to have reached my peace with them.   I’ve faced the distasteful consequences of selfish, thoughtless choices often enough that I now pause before making them, and even at times abstain.   I’ve become more confident and more creative as I get older, more willing to risk what doesn’t matter in the service of what does.

Best part is, I know what matters.  The touch of my children or my husband or my cat, the joy of intellectual exploration and discovery, the beauty of a song or a sunset, the weary peace that comes from doing my very best even if the gain is negligible, those are what matters.  Other things matter too:  paying bills on time, keeping my home and person reasonably presentable, changing the car’s oil and the cat’s flea collar and the furnace filter.  Staying on top of those practical details allows me to be independent in the world, and that’s what the game is all about at this age, folks, earning and then using the right to live exactly the way you want to.

Remember hearing over and over again how “youth is wasted on the young?”  I hope that middle age isn’t wasted on those of us lucky enough to make it this far.  It’s so easy to succumb to the relentless cultural message that youth is king, that young bodies, young voices, young minds are the ones that matter.  It’s not true!  The young still have our journeys in front of them, our lessons to learn, our losses to withstand.  They may be the darling of the advertisers and the entertainment industry, but we know exactly what that’s worth, because we were there too.  We have been given time, and with time comes the possibility of wisdom, perspective and insight.  These are the blessings of middle age, to whatever extent we may possess them.  We have fought battles and seen what it is to win and lose, and learned that at the end of either, peace is more precious than sorrow or celebration.   This is our power, the contribution we have to make and our secret weapon to bring happiness to ourselves and to the world.

Oh yes, we are powerful, we at the zenith of our arc.  Even though we may be struggling with family, health or money problems, even though we may feel like we have made no progress in detaching from our youthful hangups and flaws, time has been working on us, teaching us.  While we dealt with the daily challenges of raising children, making ends meet, building careers, we were learning who we are and how to make our talents the servants of our destiny.  We learned fortitude, persistence and how to give thanks for the days that could have been a lot worse.   As our parents’ generation enters old age, we learn to mourn and still to honor those who once we couldn’t imagine living without.  Friends in our own generation are touched and sometimes ravaged by chronic disease, mental illness or addiction, or they fall to illnesses that we never imagined happening to us…cancer, heart attacks, strokes.

We persevere in the face of all this and we keep on learning.  We weather bad marriages and build good ones, we raise unhappy children and happy ones, we work at unsatisfying jobs and ones that feed our souls, and still we learn.  We start to see that we can’t fix anyone or force anyone to be what we want them to be.  We let go of our need to control others and start putting our energy into doing what pleases and inspires us.  We are ripe for growth, and we have the tools to nurture and prune ourselves into the shapes that satisfy and enlighten us.  Do we always use those tools? Heck, no! But we have them, and that’s a start.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing about this chapter of my life has been the blurring of the mind-body barrier.  I spent my youth and much of my adult life living in my head and letting my body take care of itself. This suited me just fine, even though I didn’t enjoy the pangs of self-loathing when I considered my modestly overweight, decidedly non-athletic body compared to the version of attractiveness shown by movies/magazines/TV.  I had periods of regular exercise starting in my early 20s and even developed a regular running regimen a little after turning 30, which lasted a few years but never stopped feeling like a chore, something to meet other people’s expectations.   No surprise that it petered out and I didn’t miss it.  I just figured I was an insecure introvert and that people like me weren’t really cut out for that sort of thing.  I even took a perverse sort of pride in it, as if those who took care of their bodies and their health were somehow shallower and more vain than I.

Eventually my mind began to open.  I went through a long period in my life where chaos and instability were the norm, and learned that I felt empowered and more stable when I was feeding myself a healthy diet and ensuring that I got adequate exercise and sleep.  When that period ended and I was faced with the challenge of living exactly as I wanted to, I discovered that as long as I ate well and exercised hard, my anxieties remained manageable and my energy level remained high.  A little later in the process, I began to set and then to meet fitness and nutrition goals for myself which boosted my confidence and showed me that the best way to live in my head is to make sure my body is getting optimum care first.

The upshot, of course, is that I am now blessed to be living a life that I could never have imagined as a 22 year-old.  Some of that is due to astounding good fortune, but some of it is due to my doing it now, as a woman of a certain age with decades of experience to guide me in shaping my own destiny.  I’ve learned some lessons the hard way, and am very glad to have them behind me.  I’ve loved and lost, been knocked down and stood back up, hurt people who didn’t deserve it and then walked away.  There are plenty of not-so-proud moments in my history and I own them repentantly, with sorrow.  But they all taught me something, which is the point of this whole being-alive thing in the end.

We are all the sum of our endeavors, of our feelings and thoughts and mistakes and triumphs.  We have spent years accumulating knowledge about who we are and what we want, and our powers are sufficient to put that knowledge to good use improving our own lives and the life of our world.  Whatever route we’ve taken to get here, whatever obstacles we’ve overcome or damage we’ve done, we’re most likely past the halfway point now.  We can pause, take stock and ponder where we’ve been and where we’re going.  We can decide who we’re taking with us and how to make the journey more satisfying.   We can take comfort and courage from the fact we’ve made it this far, and resolve to make the next steps in the road more purposeful and more authentic.  This is a time for looking upon ourselves with compassion and gratitude, to acknowledge our strengths and accept our weaknesses, and above all to move forward and see what’s next.   Dull?  I think not.

©Mary Braden 2016

Addicted To Violence

I was sitting at the bedside of a drug-addicted hospital patient at the moment when 19 people were shot in the second-line of the New Orleans Mothers Day parade.  I can still feel her fragile, papery skin on my hands, and the ache of disbelief and sorrow as her slurred, wandering unsentences of denial trailed off into slack-jawed vacant dozing.  As I was documenting the failed attempt at conversation, I saw the headline scroll by on my cell phone screen.  I Googled.

“Too much!” my brain screamed silently. I stared at the news bylines aghast, paralyzed for a moment by sheer amazement, and my breath fled my lungs as if I’d been punched in the chest. “Too much!”   In front of my eyes, the number of injured began to climb, first 12 then 15 then 17.  I felt first a wave of near-hysterical relief that no fatalities were being reported, then a chilling, shuddering repugnance that I could be feeling any relief whatsoever in the face of this horror.

Nurses have a host of ways to cope with emotional trauma at work; it’s a necessity when patients need us to keep our wits about us and our judgment clear.  One of my favorites is to go into a patient’s room and focus on his or her needs while my own internal firestorm abates in the background and the initial flood of panic chemicals subsides.  On this day I returned to my drug-addicted patient and watched as she struggled to lift her eyelids and remember my name, feebly attempting to delude us both into believing that she had an atom of self-control left.

At first I felt frustration rising at the incomprehensible waste of it all, a lifetime of human potential cut short, a family fragmented, a world of dreams unrealized because of the subtle demon of addiction.  But the germ of an idea began to ooze its way around the slammed door of my mind and take shape:  can’t the weaknesses of a culture that celebrates meaningless violence be traced back to the weaknesses that plague the most isolated and powerless of its members?  America has always prided itself on being the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Could the insanity that is wreaking havoc in our streets be the natural result of our being, at heart, cowardly and dependent?

One thing that never fails to amaze me when I work with addicts and those with severe mental illness is how deeply some of them believe they have nothing to lose.  They may have loving families, vibrant personalities, extraordinary intelligence or other gifts, and yet they are convinced that what happens to them is meaningless.  They see no value in their own lives and no obligation to improve or protect the lives of others. Some element of this conviction must exist in the minds of those who would blow up the finish line of a race, shoot into a parade or riddle a schoolroom with bullets.  What troubles me more, though, is how engrossed our culture is with those who have abandoned their own lives and now exercise such a peculiarly strong hold over our own.

What glues us to the TV, watching the same footage of bloodshed and chaos over and over again when a tragedy happens?  What makes us crave information about those who slaughter more than about those who cherish? What is broken in those of us who call ourselves “normal” that we are willing to spend our precious time and money focusing on the devastation of strangers?  Are we becoming like Ancient Rome, so jaded and despairing that we turn away from our own families, our own selves, our own communities to watch slaves fight lions to the death in the arena?

Are our own lives so devoid of excitement or interest that we can only feel satisfied by minute observation of the sufferings of others?  If so, then where exactly is the line between us and those who perpetrate those sufferings? If we are making the news organizations and video game makers and movie/TV producers rich who feed our hunger to experience the adrenalin of violence without getting our own hands dirty, who are we to blame those who can’t resist the urge to step forward and seize their own day in the limelight?

We gravitate towards ringside seats at public tragedy like moths to a flame, or like junkies to a fix.  We rig the game to generate more entertainment for us—we allow poverty, ignorance and discrimination to flourish; we promote deception, intimidation and powermongering as negotiating methods; we turn a blind eye to injustice and oppression of the weakest by the strongest.  Of course there’s violence!  Like a pressure cooker with no safety valve, keep the heat on and it must explode.

My drug-addicted patients have an entire healthcare system in place to help them recover and start a new life.  Yet the majority of them shy away from treatment and eventually succumb to disease or overdose. Doesn’t that sound like our culture at large, unwilling to abandon its cultish fascination with second-hand violence?  Clinging to anything past the point where it hurts others and ourselves is a workable definition of addiction.  We need to look in the mirror and tell ourselves that it’s time to lay our addiction down, time to start preventing tragedy instead of wringing our hands on the way to the TV set.  It’s time to be both free and brave, willing to come out from behind our screens and headsets to experience life as it happens in front of us.

The devastation wrought by addiction on individuals is indescribable.  It destroys people, their families and their communities.  Look at the devastation our addiction to second-hand violence is doing to our society.  Look at the time parents spend away from their children and partners spend away from each other in our fascination with the atrocities of strangers.

In medicine and recovery circles, we ask addicts to lay down the fear and shame that accompany their attachment to their drug of choice.  We encourage them to see their addiction as something that can be overcome by focusing on learning to take care of themselves with respect and compassion.  We support them in becoming self-sufficient, engaged in healthy relationships, active personally and professionally in their communities.  Surely we can do the same for ourselves and break this cycle in which we play the role of the bloodthirsty horde, while the weakest and most broken among us attack the innocent front and center.

Can’t Be Healthy Til We Relax

Stress kills. We see it in magazines, all over the Internet, on TV and in our own lives. It is intimately linked to obesity and thus to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and depression. It’s a major player in every decision we make about our healthcare and in the dollars we pay to our providers. Our doctors tell us to slow down, meditate, get enough sleep, spend quality time nurturing ourselves. They may give us pills to reduce our anxiety, or we may self-medicate with tobacco, alcohol or other mood-altering chemicals.

The problem is that it’s not working. We’re losing the battle against stress and our collective health shows it. Obesity, the most predictable outcome of high anxiety in a world where empty calories are cheap and exercise is rare, is skyrocketing. Our pundits wring their manicured hands in dismay at the costs of taking care of our health, but carefully avoid addressing the real problem, which is this: the way we live is so stressful that we are no longer capable of making healthy, self-nurturing choices.

Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A certain amount of it is good for us, motivates us, keeps us moving forward. And it’s easier to cope with stressful things that are positive for us (marriage, promotion, new baby) than negative. But there comes a point where the stressors come too quickly, or they’re too contradictory, or they threaten us too deeply, for us to be able to handle them. That is when it becomes a health problem. In order to be healthy, we must know how to handle the flood of stimuli that are our world. Our life and death depend on it.

High anxiety throws human beings straight into the fight-or-flight (and, for women, the intensive comforting) response, flooding the system with adrenalin and other chemicals in preparation for intense physical activity. This is all very well if the situation can be resolved by fighting or running away or making sure no one is hurt, but most of our stressors are not that kind. We are plagued by vague (and not-so-vague) fears, confusion, exhaustion and frustration. No running away from those, they are a part of us.

So what do we do, hard-wired as we are to kick some ass or make a run for it when life becomes overwhelming? Nothing. In our living rooms or cubicles or cars there’s no room to run, so we just sit there and panic while our bodies absorb this chemical assault over and over again. Small wonder we make poor decisions, with the hormonal rollercoaster in full swing inside our heads.

This is our new normal and it shows no signs of slowing, this is the way of life in the heyday of the Information Age. We must adapt the way we live so that our bodies and our minds can get off that rollercoaster and function as they were designed to. To do that, stop worrying for a moment and think about what happens in your head when you’re stressed or anxious.

Our stressors tempt us to see the world in black-and-white, in terms of “either/or.” From a place of fear, it can feel impossible to step back and remember that we don’t have the whole story, that the choices we make in panic are merely shorthand, no substitute for careful consideration. To restore equanimity to ourselves and then to our world, we need to look at the world through truly open eyes and be willing to reach conclusions like “I don’t know, let’s learn more about that.” To do this, we need to take that step back, become observers of the crazy world around us instead of its pawns.

Eastern religions make much of the practice of meditation to attain this end, and it has become a mainstream tool in managing anxiety. Meditation invites us to observe our thoughts and emotions without engaging them or allowing them to direct us. As our skills mature, we are able to retain this quality of detachment while we are not meditating, and to free ourselves from being pummeled by our emotions when they are triggered by stressors beyond our control.

Ah, control. If we could understand fully what we can and can’t control, how relaxed we might all be! Discerning when we need to engage and when we can stay detached may be the most profound gift I could wish for all of us. To stay healthy, we must develop some degree of this discernment, so that we can see and understand what is happening around us and remain free enough of its drama and confusion to make sound decisions.

Interested in getting a better handle on your stress to clear your thinking? Try these; if they work for you, teach them to your children, your students, your colleagues. You are giving them the tools to take ownership of their health, and to spare themselves the indignity of lifestyle-driven disease.  This is politics, this is healthcare reform, and it begins with each of us.

Breathe. Long, slow, even breaths counteract the chemical flood of anxiety and refocus your energy on your breath rhythm instead of what’s bothering you. Feel yourself getting ramped up? Take 10 long breaths and see if your outlook changes. If it doesn’t, try another 10.

Move. Exercising while stressed gives your body an outlet and a substitute for the fight-or-flight it’s pre-programmed for. Not only will the movement do you all kinds of physical good, the release of endorphins (especially noticeable after half an hour of sustained exercise) will act as a natural anti-depressant and help equalize your mood.

Think. (Or “Write”). Step back from your situation and try to make sense of it as if it were happening to someone else. Writing down your impressions may be helpful in getting additional distance. Formulating your thoughts in a coherent way will help you see gaps in your thinking, or information that you still need.

Self-Assess.  Are you hungry or thirsty? Tired? Physically uncomfortable? Have compassion on yourself and address those issues before they get any worse. No one can tackle their problems effectively unless their brains are fed, rested and undistracted.

After practicing for a while, check your progress. Are you feeling more relaxed? More importantly, are you taking better care of yourself? Are you thinking more about what you eat? How much rest you get? Ways to move around more? Are you remembering your medicines? Your doctor appointments? Then keep it up. You’ve just figured out the first step in solving the healthcare crisis.

 

 

Health Care Reform Begins at Home

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.

A Mouthful on Health Care

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.

 

Old Woman Running

25 years ago, I was a total non-athlete. I was a reader, a conversationalist, an observer and a student rather than a participant. Other people lived in their bodies, connected with their worlds through breath and stride and resistance, but that was not for me. “Exercise” was just one of the things I was told I should do and didn’t.

Fast-forward a quarter-century and I’m on the eve of attempting my first half-marathon. The odds of success are good; it’s a 13.1 mile race and I ran 12.04 miles a few days ago without problems. Has my image of myself changed? Not really. I’m still a thinker rather than a doer, an audience for other people’s acting. But I’m having to wrap my mind around the fact that I am now also a person who makes time and space in their life for this thing called running. And that is quite a change.

I’ve never battled a serious weight problem or been given a chilling, “wake-up call” diagnosis. My blood pressure is fine, my blood sugar is fine, my cholesterol is fine. I’ve been overweight as long as I can remember, but never labeled “obese” or unable to do what I wanted because I was unfit. I’ve been able to find clothes, fit in airline seats, keep up with my kids. So I made excuses, wrung my hands occasionally and let my body slowly decondition while I lived life in my head.

I was handed the opportunity for a fresh start about 14 months ago. For about 2 years before that, I had been reading and thinking about ways to make my life a more accurate reflection of my own self rather than an attempt to avoid conflict or fulfill the expectations of others. So I finally did that. I ended or changed the boundaries of relationships that were toxic and oppressive. I began investigating my own ambitions and desires and figuring out ways to realize them. And I began to look at and think about myself in a holistic way, as an entire person rather than a discrete collection of strengths and weaknesses and habits.

The first thing I did was to start reaching out into the world to spend time with people and activities that engaged my interests. And when my timid efforts bore fruit, I felt a surge of confidence. Suddenly I became interested in seeing what I was capable of in a host of ways, in testing myself against my own goals and learning what I could really do.

So I started walking on the treadmill in the fitness center at my office. Then I started run/walking. Then I started running outside and discovered one day that I could run the entirety of my favorite long walk, some 4.4 miles. My workplace offers incentives for wellness activities, including running, so I began tracking my mileage/speed first with a pedometer and then with an iPhone app. And then a friend suggested I run a 5K and I did, and she suggested that I train for a half-marathon and I agreed. The notion of “racing” never did and still doesn’t appeal to me. The challenge of gradually training my body to be able to cover that distance is addictive; figuring out how finally to sidestep my excuses and do what is best for me is a puzzle worth lingering over.

I wonder if perhaps I spent my life as a non-athlete because I was afraid to be judged, or to fail, or to look like an idiot. I suspect the answer to all of those questions is some degree of yes. That doesn’t really matter now. What matters now is that somewhere in the fog of figuring out who I want to be during the second half of my life, it occurred to me that I want my body to be strong, and my mind to be disciplined and dedicated enough to keep it that way. I’m a nurse; I see and hear every day how people’s lives are compromised by their bodies’ failures. I have lost friends and family members to bad genes, bad lifestyle choices, bad luck. I felt like a hypocrite smoking cigarettes, eating junk food and sitting on my couch.

So I quit smoking nearly a year ago, started exercising and, more recently, began eating a near-vegan wholefoods diet. I feel great. I look good, even to myself. And most of all I feel competent. It takes work to get the basics of life–food, water, sleep, exercise–to flow in a healthy way on a regular basis. And I accomplish that work nearly every day. That’s why I keep doing it. Because for the first time ever, I am the champion of my own health, my own mental stability and clarity and creativity, my own feeling of wholeness. Running is cheaper than therapy, and it makes everything work better, from my digestion to my spiritual life. I’m a slow runner, and unlikely to gain much in speed, no matter how hard I train. I’m okay with that. Slow means less risk of injury and more time to think.

Tomorrow I’m likely to cross the finish line and be proud of myself for accomplishing the goal I set for myself months ago. Today, looking back over the long swath of time that I ignored or even abused my body, I’m grateful for having found a happier path. From now on, the effort to keep my body healthy, strong and capable will be part of who I am. I will revel in the rhythm of breath and footfall and heartbeat. I will feel the connection between myself and the trees and rocks and animals I share my world with. I will let the anxiety and frustrations of my inner life be dissolved and balanced by the flow of endorphins and the deep oxygenation of prolonged exertion. I will sleep like a child and wake with confidence because that’s the gift I finally got around to giving myself and thank God it’s not too late.

I may never define myself as an athlete. But I define myself today as a runner, and I’ll be out there running for as long as I can.