Time for a Paradigm Shift
We’ve been on our health pilgrimage, the Tour de Farm, for over a month now, and I have discovered at least one simple, easy, fast thing you need to know about being healthy! Are you ready? Here it goes: It’s not always simple, rarely easy and almost never fast. You’ll never read that as a magazine cover story or hear that in an infomercial. Sustainable health doesn’t sell. That’s why I can tell you for free. In fact, many of the catch phrases in the “health” industry promote exactly the opposite attitudes that I believe are most important for a healthy lifestyle. Everyone seems to complain that our mainstream culture is so unhealthy. Then it should not come as a surprise that to live healthfully may require stepping out of the mainstream, or least being willing to operate differently than those around you. Cultivating a relationship with your local farmers to find good local produce will never be as fast and easy as buying your groceries at the same place where you buy your batteries or pick up your prescription. There are diets, and pills and surgeries that can be very “effective,” but to what end? We have a million theories about how to extend the quantity of our lives, but what about the quality? Don’t get me wrong, I am excited about what science and technology can offer to improve our ailments and illnesses, but it seems clear by now that we don’t need a new miracle diet, a new procedure, a new drug, a new exercise plan, or a new…whatever in order to be a happier, healthier society. We need a whole paradigm shift in the way we perceive health: what it is, why it’s important and how we go about cultivating it.
A few preliminary thoughts:
One of the basic questions I sought to explore on this journey is, “What is health?” As I’ve said before, I don’t accept the anemic definition that “health” is merely the absence of illness. This is similar to calling the mere absence of war “peace,” yet we know of many places in our world today that have neither war nor peace. We can’t easily define goodness, truth or beauty, but we know they are infinitely more than just the absence of evil, lies and ugliness. The most important concepts often resist definition because they are more profound than our language, and we fear we may stifle them with our semantic fences. This is a wise caution, but if we want to cultivate the precious values that make life worth living then we must be brave. If we want to try to understand what it really means to be “healthy,” we must be willing to identify some things that nurture health. It can’t be defined simply, measured or quantified by any biometric norms (although these are helpful guides sometimes), so we must seek to understand it in quality. Let’s begin to try to name some possible characteristics of health, even if we fail to describe this robust quality with perfect precision or accuracy. The idea of Health (with a capital ‘H’) alone is too big and too daunting to tackle head-on, so to speak. However, ideas like patience, vitality and gratitude, these are things we more readily know how to express, things we can get our hands on, things we can more easily touch and feel and nurture. Let’s begin with one possible working definition that actually emerged from a conversation with our 2nd farmer.
As we were bouncing up the steep mountain road to the ferme d’art, a magical self-sustaining place, I was telling our host, Pan, about my reasons for the journey to learn more about health, and how I had asked myself, “What is health?” Although I had asked the question as a rhetorical part of my story, Pan quickly answered “It’s being alive!!” with sudden confidence and particular volume for this gentle person. This answer made me pause in my tracks. Of course I quickly agreed as you do in such congenial conversation, but I also thought about the functionality of this definition. My first thought may have been something like, yes, but that’s too simple to be helpful, but then I realized that it was actually the opposite. The idea of what makes us fully alive is not simple at all. In fact this working definition is a dynamic, multi-faceted way to think about health, and though not remotely easier, it can in fact be very helpful.
For instance, to think about a healthy person as a living, breathing being means that we cannot simply treat our bodies as machines. Machines are non-living objects created primarily with respect to functionality, economy and efficiency. If we’re not machines, it’s time we stop letting these priorities dictate our lifestyle. Our bodies are not simply means of production and food is not just fuel. Robert, our first host-farmer, talked about how the French language has two words to describe the act of eating, one refers solely to the act of eating in order to stay alive (like fuel for a machine to keep running), and the other refers to higher form of eating (like when we sit and enjoy the food and the company of others). Or to restate it simply, sometimes we eat to keep running, and sometimes we eat to keep sitting. The point is that we are not machines. We are humans. As humans we have the capacity to be productive and the capacity to experience pleasure, and I think we should do both as much and as well as possible. If being fully alive is part of being healthy, then we have to remember to enjoy. Studies from the University of Rhode Island have actually shown that eating slower and taking the time to focus on your food and consciously savor each bite can help you lose weight. Similarly, the theory behind the best-seller (perhaps not too coincidentally a French approach) French Women Don’t Get Fat suggests making meals an occasion. Break out the fine china. Set your plate. Light some candles. If you are what you eat, eat only the really good stuff.
So perhaps we can start to think about a healthy lifestyle as that which contributes to life, is life-giving and life-enhancing. Of course the obvious question we’ve introduced with this approach is far more profound and difficult… “What is life? What is to be fully human?” Questions as heavy as the human soul and as multifarious as the human race, so of course I really can’t fully answer it for you. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed a few themes emerging that I think will find expression in every healthy, fully alive person. There’s definitely not time to discuss them all in one post (or a thousand posts for that matter) but over the next few weeks I’ll try to touch on these different themes. For now I must go because I have some of my own pedaling and working and sweating and stopping and sipping and tasting and enjoying to do in Bordeaux.
PHOTO: Hand-picked cherries and hand-pitted for hand-made confiture (jam). Slow? Incredibly. Worth it? Absolutely.