A long read on what is perhaps the central root cause of why we repeatedly don’t do what’s healthy for us. Specific recommendations to come, but I’ve been pondering this topic for a while myself. — pbk
In Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things, Laurence Gonzales dives deeply into the dangers inherent in the modern, curated lifestyle of ease. A park ranger tells him, deadpan, that you’d be surprised how many people ask how far it was between the mile markers on the road. How a group of park visitors seeing the Atlantic Ocean off one side asked him if it was the Pacific Ocean they saw off the other (this was in North Carolina).
Gonzales then goes on to dissect American Airlines flight 587 and why it flew into the ground in Belle Harbor, New York, and mega disasters like Mount St. Helens. And the difference between those who survived and those who kept acting like they were used to, and did not.
Particularly if you venture into the wild, where no guardrails exist, the habit of basically living in Disneyland — all roads are paved, help is a phone call away, strangers are friendly, plants and wildlife are cute — can get you into trouble quick.
No surprise there. If you visit an Antarctic glacier, a roaring river rapid, or any equivalent of Jurassic Park, you should hire a guide (and listen to them). I highly recommend the books by Laurence Gonzales.
But I’m talking about a more universal kind of risk.
Like the risk at the end of WALL-E.
The outside world has softened
No question that civilization has greatly reduced the external threats to existence.
Although not true for everyone on earth, if you are reading this you probably
- Have a place sheltering you from the elements
- Are nowhere close to dying from lack of food or water
- Are unlikely to be kidnapped, enslaved or killed by your fellow humans
- Are very unlikely to be killed and eaten by predators
- And are relatively unlikely to die from an overwhelming infection (excluding one particularly persistent coronavirus)
It’s instructive that we still have vocabulary that encompasses these traditional threats, and that immigrants (and the current situation in Ukraine) remind us that humanity is never far from them. But to most people, the idea of walking with a sharp stick to protect against being torn to pieces by wild dogs would be laughable.
Yet inner life is hard
If Paleolithic man knew about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he’d be convinced there were just 2 levels: struggling to survive and paradise. He’d take one look at supermarkets and say You’re gods, and this is heaven, yes?
But we know.
Chronic disease is at an all-time high: more than a million Americans die every year from heart attacks and cancer, and suffer from a multitude of autoimmune conditions (diabetes, pre-diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s, chronic kidney, lung, and liver disease, acid reflux, etc.).
Many of us will eventually suffer from a mental health condition: depression, anxiety, ADD, autism spectrum/neurodivergence, obsessive-compulsive disorder. PTSD — yep, definitely seeing more post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even without being formally diagnosed, none of us is a stranger to stress, fatigue, burnout, or brain fog.
Civilization has advanced, but human beings still “bleed.” And to paraphrase Arnold in Predator, if something bleeds, whether arterially or by inches, it can be killed.
Civilization yay, personal privilege not quite
Today’s challenges may not kill us outright. But they have shifted sideways: the “problem” isn’t external so much as the internal silliness we carry with us.
It was a problem, even at the founding of a colony 415 years ago in a place called Virginia. Captain John Smith famously told the early Jamestown settlers, Don’t work? Then you won’t eat (which has been quoted so many times, starting with Thessalonians, that it apparently highlights a theme in human behavior).
For whatever reason, it wasn’t obvious to a subset of settlers that not doing critical work would lead to starvation. They were so adept at overlooking this basic consequence — or thinking the rules didn’t apply to them — that someone had to restate things in terms they could no longer ignore. If you don’t work, we could all starve this winter, so if you want to be fed now, get to it.
Problems at this level tend to self-correct. When consequences are dire, people take corrective action or get subtracted from the gene pool. But even 415 years ago, when life was supposedly simpler and consequences clearer, human beings were still capable of ignoring the basic logic of IF YOU DON’T DO A, THEN B HAPPENS (DIRT NAP SLAPS YOU IN THE FACE).
Cushy modern life or not, some things still need doing
In a curated modern world with few survival threats, our bandwidth is taken up by matters of infinite choice: which cars, which colors, which take-out, which celebrity, which news feed, etc. All of which are matters of preference. I like strawberry ice cream, you like chocolate, we can discuss the merits of our personal tastes.
So, not surprisingly, people bristle when told that there are some rules that must be obeyed or else (catastrophe). That if the alternative is unthinkable, there isn’t really room for choice besides obedience, dang it, and having options is what 99% of modern decision-making has trained us to regard as the “natural” norm.
This is an unfortunate artifact of language and modern life. The rules I’m highlighting are not about rights, disrespect, power, influence, face, or social standing.
They’re not about agency. Or things to stand up for.
They are more akin to the laws of physics.
Gravity doesn’t care about your political connections: if you jump off a building, you fall. Electromagnetism and chemistry don’t care about your arguing skills: if you go too long without plugging in your phone, your lithium battery will fail. No matter how much you yell at it.
This is a description of how the world works. It’s not the first round of a debate.
Medicine, which consists of biology, biochemistry, immunology, molecular and microbiology plus a hell of a lot of other sciences (with a sprinkling of hand holding and straight shooting), is much the same. The body and mind will degrade and break if you do certain things. No matter how wealthy, generous, connected, or clever you are, your pancreas, liver, neurons, and blood vessels are incapable of being impressed and cannot be swayed. Or ignored.
Shame is not involved on either side. If mistreated, your body parts will simply stop functioning from under you one day.
There is no negotiating with or ignoring your personal health
Negotiating implies a willingness to walk away to force a better deal. How can you walk away when the other side is part of you? How can you “win” when doing so means the other side — your body — takes a loss, or if a third party, like a virus, is incapable of understanding anything you have to say?
How can you ignore the consequences of not minding your health? Easily, it turns out: binging on videos, news feeds, and the endless scroll, to then skip out on eating cleanly, exercising regularly, and otherwise exerting effort and WORKING to keep yourself healthy, fit, and hard to kill/fool.
You work, or you don’t eat, end of “negotiation”; most of modern life de-emphasizes this dynamic, which like gravity is basically obey whether you like it or not, still acting on you whether you ignore it or not.
But health and wellness are like gravity. And a considerable amount of suffering could be avoided by recognizing this.
It’s never been hard, knowing what to do to stay healthy. The actual deciding to act, plus the acknowledgment that we are off course and it’s time to get down to it — the parts subject to the clouding of men’s minds — have always been and forever will be the bigger challenge.