I’m jumping off the ship. I’m changing course from my alternative health colleagues, gurus, and specialists. After years of promoting a concept of ideal health and telling patients and friends how they can increase their healthiness, I am changing my tune and simply stating, “I don’t like the idea of perfect health.”
For years, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the concept of health. What is it? When I say I’m healthy what does that mean? Does it mean that I don’t have any cells in my body that are not working correctly or does it mean that when cells don’t function properly that they are discarded and replaced by new cells? Is health the absence of symptoms? Does health truly exist? Is health one of those Buddhist koans where asking “What is health?” is like asking “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
In 1948, the World Health Organization defined health as: “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Unfortunately, this resulted with many people feeling deflated. They accurately deduced that by holding such a definition no one was ever going to be pronounced healthy.
Working in a wholistic health model for 9 years, I have been bombarded by the dogma of perfect health. Images and rhetoric of wellness, exercise, nutrition, longevity and everything organic have passed my way in the name of good or perfect health. This rhetotric has saturated my culture. We have preoccupied our minds with healthier looking skin, stronger muscles, perfect cholesterol and blood pressure scores, and even the “perfect spine.” And, in my opinion, herein lies the subtle thief. The pursuit of perfect health can be very unhealthy. This definition may drive us to the obsessive pursuit of an unattainable goal. What is the result of such a belief?
I am dropping this pursuit because I don’t like the way it feels. One can never measure up to this model. It is much the same way a young girl might start thinking she is insufficient if she is not 5′ 11” and 110 lbs. The pursuit of perfect health may become an obsessive disorder- plagued by insecurities, guilty thoughts, and binge outings. In my experience, I found this obsession, ironically, to be unhealthy! So here are a few suggestions about health that I have found to work for me.
Health is a only a tool.
Maybe this is why the WHO, almost 50 years later, changed its definition to the following:
“a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.”
I like this definition. It helps me to keep perspective. Health is a tool, not the pursuit. Making health the reason for living may be a slippery slope. It is like putting the cart before the horse. We end up serving the “ideal of health” instead of having health serve us.
Second, I believe health to also be about…
A balanced posture. A balance of nutritional intake. A balanced spine and nervous system. Balance between your cells and your tissues and your organs. And, maybe most of all, a balanced perspective. These are all attributes of what it means to me to be healthy. Sacrificing the health of one aspect of us- such as our mind and spirit, for the sake of another aspect of us, such as our body, is not balanced and not healthy. It reminds me of the young athlete taking steroids to increase their strength at the expense of their liver and reproductive organs.
And so, third, health to me is…
that which collectively empowers the body, mind, and spirit.
Run if you want to run. Exercise if you want to exercise. Eat kale if you want to eat kale. Meditate if you want to meditate. And sleep if you want to sleep. All of these things have been shown to have many positive health benefits. But if you are doing it because you “should” (a cultural dictum) or because you believe the ideal of perfect health is right around the corner (Nirvana), then I caution you. You may be doing more harm than health to your mind and spirit. And how healthy would that be?
It may be more healthy to eat a Twinkie and be happy than to refrain from eating it in a spirit of rigid self -loathing.
-Dr. Jerry Gould