Did you happen to come down with one of those awful bugs that were going around this winter? If so, you might recall not just how lousy you felt, but also how little interest you had, while ill, in much of anything except recovering.
Attending a community meeting? Volunteering? Cleaning up a littered ditch? Mentoring somebody? Calling your member of Congress?
Ugh, no. When you’re feeling sick, exhausted, or down in the dumps, it’s hard to summon that kind of get-up-and-go. Problem-solving and world-improving are probably not on the menu. Because as well intended as you may be, it’s probably everything you can do just to get through the day.
Of course, if you’re normally healthy, and just happen to get some bug that’s going around, you’ll generally recover pretty quickly, so this depleted state will be a mercifully short-lived phenomenon.
But what if you’re not normally all that healthy and energetic? What if we’re not talking about a 24-hour flu here, but rather a protracted case of the low-grade blahs?
What if you’ve been feeling baseline lousy, logy, stressed, heavy, or physically and mentally dragged down not just for a few days, but for weeks, months, or years on end?
A run of that kind of chronic suffering can be enough to make you forget what it’s like to feel really good, energized, enthusiastic. Or even to imagine that might be possible.
Unfortunately, that’s the semi-depleted state that most Americans are living in most of the time.
Right now, two out of three adults are overweight or obese. Nearly half of us are contending with one or more chronic diseases. And some estimates suggest that almost 70 percent of U.S. adults rely on at least one prescription medication.
In some cases, those drugs help us muddle through and keep scary symptoms at bay, but (as their advertising disclaimers reflect) their side effects and interactions can also undermine our health and the quality of our lives in a multitude of ways.
And then there’s stress, which contributes to chronic illness and depression, and has its own special way of making you feel that nothing you do will ever be enough — that you’re not keeping pace even with the basic requirements of your life.
If you’re feeling like that, don’t blame yourself. This is an epidemic that millions are suffering from. It’s a byproduct of the culture we live in. And that’s a big part of why, according to psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, only a small minority — about 20 percent of us — can be said to be thriving at any given time.
Of course, even if you are suffering and feeling lousy, you can still be contributing a lot and helping make the world a better place. But I bet you anything that if you felt better, you’d be able to operate at an even higher level. You’d have more energy, clarity, and capacity available to offer with ease. Without it costing you or depleting you in any way.
Health, to me, is about that sense of thriving, that sense of surplus, that feeling that you not only have enough (energy, vitality, focus, strength, enthusiasm for life), you have plenty.
When you’re really healthy and happy, you may have so much, in fact, that you start looking for ways to give back and share it around. As I wrote in last month’s column (“Revolutionary Act No. 10: See the Bigger Picture”), when you get better, everybody benefits.
That’s what Revolutionary Act No. 11, “Be Part of the Solution,” is all about. It recognizes that in the context of the local and global challenges we are collectively facing, it’s going to take a great deal of energy, determination, creativity, and hope to solve the problems that want solving.
It also surmises that much of that energy, determination, creativity, and hope is going to come from people who can summon a surplus on behalf of themselves, their loved ones, and the communities they care about.
The more people succumb to chronic illness, obesity, and daily reliance on pharmaceutical medications for lifestyle-related conditions, the fewer resources they can bring to bear in improving their own and their communities’ situation. Economically, too, the more we spend on ineffective, stop-gap healthcare, the less we have to put toward other world-improving efforts and solutions.
With this in mind, I was excited to learn recently that Bernice King (Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter) and the King Center have embraced an expanded definition of nonviolent social change that includes nonviolence against one’s own body.
That redefinition reflects the reality that one of the most pernicious forms of violence — especially within socially and economically challenged communities — now occurs in the form of chronic illness and obesity, which are experienced at record rates among low-income and minority groups.
Such health challenges and disparities pose a significant threat not just to individual health, but to the freedoms and life chances of whole communities. By continuously undermining our capacity and absorbing our resources, chronic health limitations undermine our ability to thrive, to contribute socially, and thus to effect positive change on our own and others’ behalf.
The good news is, we can change that. If you want to become a bigger and better part of the solution, here are some ways you can begin:
- Make your health a priority. No matter who else you are trying to take care of, and no matter what ambitions you have for changing the world, do everything you can to safeguard rather than deplete or sacrifice your own vitality, resilience, and well-being. You are a precious resource. The world needs more, not less, of the very best you have to offer.
- Set an example others can follow. You don’t need a bikini body and six-pack abs to be a health-and-fitness role model. The mere fact that you get out for a daily walk, or eat lots of vegetables, or drink water rather than soda could make an immense impact on the perceptions and choices of others without your ever realizing it. Health happens in community, and by example. That can start with you.
- Recognize that even low-grade illness equals oppression. To the extent you are feeling lousy and exhausted, you are not truly free or fully empowered. While it is absolutely possible to be chronically ill and also be a powerhouse contributor to positive change within your family, neighborhood, or community, it’s not easy. The healthier you get — even within the frame of health limitations that are beyond your control — the more easily you’ll be able to offer your best with grace, the more sustainable your contributions will be, and the better they will feel to give.
For more ways you can shift your body and mind in the direction of solutions that make you happy, see the “Revolutionary Reading” below. And keep in mind that it’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to put your body and mind on a healing track, and to bring the rest of your world along for the ride.
“A Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed-Up World” — Ten self-evident truths that can help us reclaim our well-being and create a healthier reality.
“Free Yourself From Depression” — An expert guide to radically improving biochemical balance, mood, and energy through lifestyle interventions.
“The Health Benefits of Volunteering” — Surprising ways focusing on good causes can improve your body-mind well-being.
“How to Begin a Daily Meditation Practice” — Ten tips for anchoring this transformative ritual into your life.