An ever-increasing body of medical research is coming to the definite conclusion that the quality of your relationships with other people may be the single most important determinant of your health and longevity.
A few years ago, I received a letter from a woman in southern California. She wrote that she and her husband had for many years avidly followed a path of health. Their lifestyle, she believed, had been exemplary. They had practised yoga and meditated and neither of them had let a single bite of anything containing refined sugar pass their lips. They exercised regularly and never took any drugs, not even so much as an aspirin. They had been very happy together, she said, and had believed that by eating healthful foods and undertaking other sound health practices they would never fall ill.
But now she felt bitter, angry and cheated. In his fifties, her husband had developed cancer and died. What was the point, she lamented, of all their health diligence when this could still happen? Despondent and feeling betrayed, she had given up any semblance of health discipline and was stuffing herself with hamburgers, candy and the other unwholesome foods she had forgone for years. She no longer exercised and had gained more than 70 pounds in the three years since her husband’s death. She had developed diabetes and was overwhelmingly depressed.
Reading this woman’s letter, I felt sorrow. I felt sad for her loss of her husband, and sad for how depressed, despondent and bitter she had become. And I felt sad, too, that she and her husband had held the misguided belief that their diet and lifestyle could guarantee them everlasting health. There is something innocent and childlike about believing that if you eat only healthful foods and exercise enough, you will never become ill.
There is a part of all of us that would like to be able to follow some magic rule or obey some infallible authority and thereby be guaranteed freedom from all suffering. But life just doesn’t work that way. Life is far more unpredictable and far more mysterious.
I’ve known raw food aficionados who believe that all cooked food is unhealthful and who, when they become ill, blame it on the one piece of cooked food they’ve recently eaten. I’ve known zealous Atkins adherents who demonize carbs and then agonize because in a lapse of willpower they ate a baked potato. I’ve known people who believe that if they eat only pure food and take thousands of dollars worth of supplements, they will live indefinitely.
A good diet and exercise regimen is important and living healthfully can make a tremendous difference. But there are many other factors in our lives that also have great influence over our health. Someone may die of a skin cancer at age 50 that began as the result of a teenage sunburn. Some cancers, particularly breast, uterine, ovaria, and prostate cancers start in the womb, engendered in part by the food our mothers ate and the chemicals in their environments.
We live in a world that is becoming increasingly toxic and polluted. There are many environmental exposures over which we have no control. Some diseases occur whose origins are complete mysteries, descending on people seemingly out of the blue, no matter what their lifestyle. Others develop that are intimately linked to social factors such as poverty and dangerous working conditions. There are powerful forces in our world that are undermining relationships, forcing people to work insane hours and poisoning our air and water.
Because the food we eat is one factor that we can often control, we sometimes attribute to it a degree of importance that is inconsistent with reality. Doing so can give us the illusion that we are completely in charge. We may feel that nothing bad can happen to us as long as we adhere with sufficient stringency to the dietary regimen in which we have invested such magical powers. The trouble is that even people with perfect diets sometimes get cancer. Horrible things can, and often do, happen to people who do not deserve them.
The woman who wrote to me had believed that her and her husband’s lifestyle would guarantee them long lives without illness. When this belief was so painfully punctured, she was left bereft and unable to cope. Hers is a very sad story, and I tell it here not to embarrass her or find fault with her in any way, but in the hope that others might learn something from her experience.
I wrote back to her that I was sorry to learn of her loss and how much suffering she had experienced. I spoke to her of the pain and disillusionment I’ve known in my own life, when ideals and dreams I had believed in came crashing down around me, and of the life I had found on the other side of disillusionment and despair.
Later in the letter, I said I hoped that in time she would be able to see that it is possible to make healthy choices, not in the belief that by doing so she would never be ill or die, but because she knows that suffering occurs in every human life, and she wants to prevent as much illness as she can and alleviate as much suffering as she is able. It is possible to take responsibility for your health and life, I wrote, not to avoid everything painful in the human experience, but to lessen suffering and to enrich and illumine who you are with wisdom and love. I wrote that her letter reminded me of something I once heard from a wise man: “If you go forward, you will die. If you go backward, you will die. It is better to go forward.”
The point of going forward, of working to make your life a positive expression of your highest vision, is not to avoid all suffering and death, for that is not within the realm of human possibility. The point, rather, is to meet all of your life experiences, including the most difficult ones, with the greatest powers of love and healing within you. The gift of going forward is not that you will never physically decline or fall ill, but that you will be less likely to do so prematurely and be better able to enter wholly into your life and meet whatever the world brings you with grace and wisdom.
If you eat natural foods, jog or meditate because you feel better when you do, because you feel closer to yourself and more alive, then even if you should die younger than you might wish, you will not regret having cared for yourself. If you experience a particular diet or lifestyle as a point of entry into greater presence and well-being, then whatever happens, you’ll be grateful for your choices. If lifting weights or doing yoga or aerobic exercise provides you with more access to yourself, if it brings you balance and strength, if it helps you listen to your body, then even if serious illness occurs, you’ll be glad you’ve done everything you could on behalf of your wellness, and thankful for the life you’ve lived.
A healthful diet and lifestyle almost always lead to a longer and healthier life. They provide increased vitality, improved resistance to disease and a greater sense of wholeness and freedom. But even the finest exercise and diet plan cannot forever overcome the inevitability of aging. Eventually, even the best-cared-for bodies begin to weaken and no longer function as they did once.
In our appearance-oriented society, aging can seem like a misfortune. But in the process of aging, people often come to understandings that are crucial to the completion and fulfillment of their lives. They learn something about loss and acceptance. They may have to cope with enormous difficulties – a husband dying, a wife getting cancer, even the death of a child. They come to know how vulnerable everyone is. They understand there are no easy answers, and that life is hard at times for everyone.
We have so much to learn from the old. There was a cartoon in the New Yorker entitled Yuppie Angst. A man is saying, “Oh no, I spilled cappuccino on my down jacket.” Elders, who have seen their families and friends die, who have seen generations of children being born, can have a deeper understanding of tragedy. Closer to death, they are much more in touch with the cycles of life. They understand what makes a life worth living. They know there is little point in having low cholesterol and rock hard abs if you don’t love your life.
There is a story about a mother who asked a little girl to offer grace at breakfast. Agreeing to do so, the little girl began, “We thank you, dear God, for this beautiful day.”
“Bless you, my dear,” said her mother, “for offering the prayer, but apparently you didn’t look outdoors before you prayed. It’s raining and it’s a dismal day.”
“Mother,” responded the little girl. “Never judge a day by its weather.” The little girl understood how important it is to bring our love to all our moods and experiences. This means finding the beauty and giving thanks for the opportunities in every phase of our lives. This is not always easy, but it is of immense significance.
We are all vulnerable and naked before the mysteries of life. Sometimes when we look deeply and honestly at our woundedness, we discover our power, our joy and our will to live. We realize that we can accept imperfections, and that our lives don’t have to be perfect to be precious.
A human life has its seasons, much as the Earth has seasons, and each one has its own particular beauty and possibilities. When we ask life to remain perpetually spring, we turn the natural process of life into a process of loss rather than a process of celebration and appreciation.
Excerpted from Healthy at 100 by John Robbins, copyright 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House Publishing Group. John Robbins is the author of Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution and Reclaiming Our Health, and founder of EarthSave International, a non-profit organization dedicated to healthy food choices, preservation of the environment and a more compassionate world. (www.healthyat100.org)
Things become beautiful when you love them
There are those who when they look in the mirror and see signs of aging – a new grey hair, a new wrinkle or blemish – rush to cover it up with some cream, ointment or dye. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, but if you are at war with the aging process, you are going to lose. Those who try to pretend that they aren’t aging will find themselves in an impossible race with death. As Morrie Schwartz said, “If you’re always battling against getting older, you’re always going to be unhappy, because it will happen anyway.”
Some years ago, an advertising executive working for a large beauty products company had a bright idea. In its ads, the company began asking people to send in photographs along with brief letters about the most beautiful women they knew. Within a short time, the company had received more than a thousand photos and letters.
One particular letter caught the attention of the employee whose job it was to open and sort them, and eventually the letter made its way to the company president. It was filled with spelling and punctuation errors and was written by a young boy living in a very rough neighbourhood. He wrote of a beautiful woman who lived down the street.
“I visit her every day,” he wrote. “And she makes me feel like the most important kid in the world. We play checkers and she listens to my problems and gives me apples. She understands me. When I leave, she always yells out the door, for the whole world to hear, that she’s proud of me.”
The boy ended his letter by saying, “I don’t know if you can tell by this picture, but she is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. I hope I someday have a wife as pretty as her.”
Curious, the company president asked to see the photograph that had accompanied the letter. His secretary handed it to him. It showed a smiling woman whose sparse grey hair was pulled back in a bun. She was well along in years, her face bore many wrinkles and she was sitting in awheelchair. Yet her eyes were luminous with kindness and joy.