If you live in the U.S. today, or in most of the developed world to a lesser extent, you live in a culture obsessed with health.
Obsessed with thinking about health, that is. Those who actually do something about it are still in the minority.
Why is that? I don’t think it’s any more complex than taking a look at our priorities.
Our lives are frantic. We work longer hours than our bodies can stand in order to service our crushing personal debt loads, then come home to two or three hours shuttling our kids from one activity to the next so they can learn how to work longer hours than their bodies can stand. It’s dark by the time we get home, so instead of cooking, we order takeout. Then we flop down in front of the TV and spend a couple of hours together, but we’re all so tired we don’t engage as a family. Instead, we flicker between the release of the mindless screen and our guilt over all the things we didn’t get done during the day–a list so long we couldn’t have done it all even if we didn’t have to work such long hours.
After that, those of us who hope one day not to have to work for someone else put our kids to bed, then spend an hour or so working on whatever enterprise is supposed to bring our families financial freedom. Finally, we collapse into bed for a few hours, then get up the next morning and do it all again.
In order to embrace health, in order to quit feeling guilty about our obesity and our frantically inactive lives, we have to take action. But in order to do that, we have to say no to something else on our list, move something from the thank-God-I-got-that-done column to the dammit-I-really-should-do-that column. Except most of the things in the thank God column are things we do for others; saying no to something in that column feels like saying no to them. And many of the things in the dammit column are for others, too–if we’re going to stop doing something, shouldn’t we replace it with one of those?
That’s where courage comes in.
Remember the airplane safety briefings we all ignore? There’s a part where the flight attendant says Put your own oxygen mask on before helping your child with theirs, more or less. It’s a simple statement, much less direct than the one the PR people wouldn’t let the airlines use:
If you’re stupid enough to pass out because you’re too busy with your kid’s mask to put your own on, you’re both going to suffocate and die.
At least, that’s what I imagine the first draft looked like. Here it is in more general terms: You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself.
It’s true for a lot more than the airplane ride where, honestly, the odds of it ever happening are vanishingly small. The odds of it happening in your life outside an airplane, if you live like most of us, are very close to certain.
Because in order to choose ourselves, we will have to disappoint somebody. Somebody important to us is going to look at us disapprovingly. They might even use the word so many of us hate more than any other: selfish.
Part of courage is the ability to put that word in perspective, to realize its usual ironic meaning is you’re not doing what I want, and to accept that it’s OK if not everybody leans on you all the time. Because if we can let them stand on their own long enough to take a walk, or run a couple of miles, or go to the gym, we’ll be there to help them when they really need it. And they’ll see it’s okay to take care of themselves, and maybe they won’t have to draw on courage quite as much when it’s their lives and their kids.
See what you did there? You made them stronger by taking time for yourself.
And sometimes, you may really not have the time. That’s OK. Try to eat something that’s good for you–it’s good for them, too, by the way–and don’t beat yourself up. Do what you can, and don’t dwell on the fact that somebody on TV seems able to do more (she probably has a staff of people helping her).
Do what you can. But have the courage to do that.