“Every argument is a theological argument.” – Hiliare Belloc
I’ve noticed people, including myself at times, treat the pursuit of health as a religion. In this modern religion, the individual person is the “god” and there are certain dogmas not to be violated like fast food, smoking, or eating fried food. Smoking cigars and drinking alcohol is also questionable, as is not going to the gym. Those who stick to the “moral” teachings of the health religion of the self, judge those unfavorably who don’t abide by the dogmas, the unsophisticated people who eat at Cracker Barrel, or like Soul food, or who don’t bicycle or love fried shrimp.
The last thing we ever want to think about is our own death, and the pain it might bring if we don’t live right. So, we hold up physical health as the highest ideal possible, and even look down on people who don’t abide by our religion. The priests for this religion are therapists, trainers (like me), doctors, and gurus, acting as counselors, preachers, and life coaches. They tell us what we want to hear, and assure us with educated talk about tests, procedures, and methods and achieving “our best life- whatever that means”. We analyze our cholesterol, our lipids, and our balance, but also our “self-esteem” and our body fat percentages.
It took me a long time to realize this, but the modern health religion when taken to an extreme, degrades the human experience by tying all of life up too closely with the material and immediate world around us, attaching us to ephemeral objects, at the expense of more fulfilling things. That’s why I would always feel uneasy about certain things I’d see in gyms and at health classes. People get anxious and dogmatic about the health religion precisely because it lacks a broader perspective. Like “success” tactics, practicing health tactics can’t give you health, just like “success” tactics do not really mean anything without clearly defining what success is. Success tips can’t make you “successful” because success depends on values, just like health depends on living by your values, not on techniques.
The problem with this health religion is that it is a false god, a false idol, holding up a perfectly healthy human body as an idol, that masks the fact that we must grapple with our own mortality and attach ourselves more fully to things that transcend the material world if we really want to be healthy. Because being healthy is primarily about first premises, about the way we see things. We can choose to be healthy or not in an instant. Our attachment to the transcendent things – our families, God, friends, faiths, communities, the moral order of the universe- not to the material state of immediate things is what makes us live a happy, fulfilled, and contented life. Obsession with health is deep down a type of degraded existence, throwing us into a purely materialistic and decaying world with nothing beyond. Even an old-fashioned stoic pagan of the pre-B.C. era would be puzzled by our disdain for philosophy and our obsession with temporary health scores.
Think about the people who have heart defects, mental issues, injuries, food allergies, or arthritis. Are they any less healthy and capable of enjoying life? Are people who don’t go to gyms not healthy? Of course, they are. I like the example of Winston Churchill. He smoked and drank every day but he was healthy because of who he was and what he stood for, not because of his health data.
No one is completely healthy. No one can meet the perfect health standard for everything. Health is a right perspective and being able to do want we want to do, and sometimes we must choose to want to do different things. Health is not about being perfect, but about being in harmony.
I used to believe that people should try to “create their own life”, and “you can do whatever you want to do” and all those other clichés. As I have grown and learned more about health, the more I realize that being healthy is much more about contentment and being able to mature into who God created you to be, to change what we can, and accept what we can’t.
The religion of health is a perfectly “nice” religion. Sure, it’s judgmental, but it doesn’t mean to hurt anyone and it usually judges behind closed doors about others. The health religion has its’ sanctimonious “holier than thous” just like any other religion.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be healthy. It’s good to take care of yourself and avoid fast food and smoking. But health is a choice starting now. Health starts first with how we see things.
We should take care of our body, because it’s our only way to get around and live. We should treat the body as a temple, like most religions teach. But exercise, nutrition, and all the other things we do to be healthy are only means to an end. They are not the ends themselves.
The religion of health the way we practice it often is a distraction. It is a way to keep us from facing our conscience, our B.S., our pain, and our ongoing mistakes and regrets. It’s a roadblock for things that really need to be done, one of which might just be relaxing. Sometimes, just being quite would be the best thing we could do for our health.
I went for a long 4 hour walk last summer and something deeply significant occurred to me that I don’t think would have occurred to me otherwise. I wrote someone a letter immediately. But it’s an ongoing struggle with me to stay committed and focused on the simple things, on first things.
Health is more than spin classes, whole wheat bread, and salmon.
The truth is that we never know when our time will come. This is much better for us to remember than a lot of the dogmas of our modern health religion.
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