The Health Hierarchy

The Fat Nutritionist, one of my favourite bloggers, posted today sharing her brilliant insights in the ways that we use health as a marker of success and how that affects people who are inherently “unhealthy.” Check out her post at When health is not on your side..

Health is the newest hierarchy that our culture has developed. We human beings seem to have an inherent need to find ways to rank ourselves. Wealth has long been a primary status hierarchy. Race has tragically been used too often to create a hierarchy of differences. Gender, of course, is still used to prove that one type of human being is better than another. But health is the current hierarchy fad, and we are being led to believe that it is something we can earn for ourselves. As The Fat Nutritionist writes,

By this definition, if you have good cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, and no notable illnesses or conditions, then you’ve achieved health.

There is, according to this definition, no reason that we can’t raise ourselves up on the health hierarchy. All you have to do is take care of yourself, right? Exercise and eat right and you will be Healthy. But, as she rightfully points out, that isn’t always possible.

I can’t help but look at the issue through my theological glasses, of course. Sometimes, Christians seem preoccupied with the importance of Health. The whole “Less of me and more of Jesus” approach to weight loss is a great* example. I think we might claim not to be worried about outward appearances (i.e. the ugliness of fat) but about the inward importance of physical health. I’ve heard the argument that we need to be physically healthy because then we will be prepared to do whatever work the Lord might ask of us (such as going on a foreign mission). I’ve heard the argument that being healthy is a way of honouring God in our bodies (we’ll ignore the context of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, which is sexual morality not physical Health). Of course, there could be an argument that striving for health is a way of loving ourselves well.

I’ve often wondered how people with disabilities and illnesses feel about these arguments. The person with Multiple Sclerosis doesn’t know from day to day if he will be able to “do whatever work the Lord might ask.” He needs to trust that the Lord knows him and his weaknesses and won’t ask him to do something that his illness prevents. And the Lord is trustworthy, so he can rest assured that will be the case. The person with bad asthma may not be able to exercise to “honour God in her body” because she risks triggering a severe attack that will leave her weaker than ever and risk her life. She honours God in her body by serving Him faithfully in whatever way she can, knowing that will be enough for our good God of mercy. Striving for health might not be possible for the working poor. They spend all their time working just to make ends meet and then are often only able to afford “junk food.” I am confident that God recognizes their situation and is pleased that they are doing their best with what they have.

“Well,” you might be thinking, “but that all makes sense. The person with Multiple Sclerosis, the person with asthma, the working poor all have problems that are not their fault. What about the person who gave themselves Type II Diabetes or high cholesterol or overweight or whatever? They did it to themselves. They should feel bad. They did something sinful.”

First of all: did they? How do you know? Are you sure that you aren’t judging someone by their appearance without knowing the whole story?

Second: are you sure that unhealthy habits are actually sins? I’m not.

Third: so what? Do you think that God loves the fat person less? What about the person whose sweet tooth led to diabetes? What about the person who loves rich, greasy food and gave themselves a heart attack? Do you really think that these people are less important to God than healthy people?

 

Health is just another hierarchy. Christians are called not to consider ourselves better than others based on race, class, or gender (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28). Paul hadn’t seen a world where we treated one another differently based on perceptions of Health, but I think if he had, he would’ve added “healthy nor unhealthy” to his list. Actually, I take it back. Paul did see such a world. He saw a world where lepers and people with “imperfections” (anything from birthmarks to physical and intellectual disabilities) were cast out of society and had to live in squalor on the outside of the cities. He also knew a Saviour who walked amongst those people, who healed some of them of their diseases, and who promises that all are welcome in the Kingdom of God.

Our bodies are broken by the Fall. Some are broken more than others. Some are broken because they haven’t been loved well by themselves or by other bodies. But our broken bodies are a part of our humanity and our humanity is a gift from the God who made us in His image. As Christians we are called to love one another and to value others above ourselves. There is no room for judgment based on Health in that call.

One more quote from the excellent post linked above:

The reality is that health is not an achievement. It’s something you already have, and it looks a bit different for every person. Health is a dynamic resource that each person carries with them, in some form, through their entire life. …By coping well and caring for yourself, in whatever way works best for your unique habitus and challenges, and by living a life that matters to you, you are cultivating the health that is already yours.

As Christians, I would encourage you to take the health you have as a gift from God. Recognize that your body is broken but that the effects of the Fall are temporary. That doesn’t make our brokenness any easier to handle, but it will give us hope, leading us to care for ourselves and live our lives well based on our unique health resources. Recognize also that, even if you are temporarily Healthy, you have not achieved something that makes you better than anyone else. Beware of pride. There is nothing wrong, of course, with doing things like exercising or eating well, because those things make us feel good and could give us strength and energy. But they aren’t a form of righteousness and they never will be, just as eating some cake is not a sin (I will concede that eating ALL THE CAKES could be considered a sin, but gluttony is not the topic of this post). Most of all, loving your body is good, but loving other bodies is better. By that I mean that we should take care of our brothers and sisters and love them as they are, not as what we think they should be.

If you haven’t already, go read The Fat Nutritionist’s post. It was awesome and much better thought out than mine.

 

*and utterly humiliating. Christians can be so painfully cheesy sometimes.

 

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Cultivating Wonder

A sea lion awaiting his meal at the Vancouver Aquarium

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Vancouver Aquarium with my husband, my parents, and my sister. Although we’ve lived in the Greater Vancouver area for seven and a half years, I’d only been to the Aquarium twice before this. That’s too bad, because, in my opinion, it is a local treasure. Many people are opponents of the facility, claiming that it is unfair to many of these animals to have them “imprisoned,” but so many of the larger sea creatures at the Aquarium  A Pacific White Sided dolphin jumps out of the water at the Vancouver Aquariumare rescues who would have perished on their own in the wild. Furthermore, the important research done at the Aquarium (it is a non-profit organization) helps us learn more about how to protect the wild cousins of the Aquarium’s residents.

But that’s enough apologetics for the Vancouver Aquarium. What I found there wasn’t just a large collection of interesting sea creatures. I also encountered my sense of wonder.

We live in a culture that is really good at destroying wonder, especially in adults. The mundane practicalities of life push aside our wonder. Stress strangles it. Pain and grief smother it. Worse, I think that some of us are taught—directly or indirectly—that wonder is something reserved for children, and that adults have matured beyond it.

For me, depression dealt a heavy blow to my sense of wonder. Things that would normally have brought me joy simply by existing were no longer able to raise that emotion in me. As I have been recovering from depression, I have also been recovering my sense of wonder.

So I enjoyed the Aquarium more than I had on my two previous visits (granted, for one of those visits I was battling the pain of a dry socket after a wisdom tooth extraction). This was helped along by the fact that we were selected by one of the A photo of one of the jellyfish tanks at the Vancouver AquariumAquarium volunteers to be taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of the jellyfish lab!  I was so thankful that I am now in a place emotionally where I could really enjoy seeing the unusual beauty of the jellyfish and not feeling awkward about being singled out (depression sucks, literally).

As I’ve been reflecting on the visit, it has occurred to me that there is something special about the way that animals provoke our sense of wonder. This is especially true for me. I love stopping to watch birds or animals in our neighbourhood. It helps that I live somewhere in the world where it isn’t unusual to see a bald eagle flying around in the city. But as I was watching the dolphins and sea lions and porpoises and beluga whales, I was able to tap into that sense of wonder at their beauty, grace, and intelligence. The jellyfish are strange and otherworldly, delicate and deadly. The electric eel held my attention for a surprising amount of time.

I think it is important to cultivate wonder in our lives. Spending time with children no doubt helps facilitate the process. Ideally, a child still has their sense of wonder intact, and very young children spend time wondering at things we have long learned to take for granted. But even if there are no children in your lives, it’s possible to pull your sense of wonder out of the closet in your mind and give it some air. Spend some time looking—and I mean really looking—at flowers or newly formed leaves or a squirrel as it runs or anything else that tweaks your sense of wonder.

A sea lion awaiting his meal at the Vancouver AquariumListen to birds singing. Find a mountain and really think about how big it is. Stare up at the stars and remember how far away they are.

Isn’t this universe wonderful?

What provokes your sense of wonder?

Everything New is Old Again

The Daily Post started me thinking about how much technology has changed in the last 34 years by asking “Of all the technologies that have gone extinct in your lifetime, which one do you miss the most?” In general, I can’t think of anything that I specifically miss because so many of the technologies that no longer exist have simply changed over the years. Cassette tapes have been replaced first by compact discs and then by MP3’s (there was also the MiniDisk, but that never really took off in North America). Video games evolved from the Intellivision through the early generation consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System through several more generations to the motion capture technology we are seeing in the Xbox Kinect. Telephones first became cordless then cellular then texting took off and now we have moved beyond smart phones to SuperPhones. Even my television is “smart” now, and even books are read on devices.

I’m not even going to discuss the evolution of computers and the internet.

So, how much is there to miss, exactly? I don’t own a cassette player anymore, but I do still have all my old tapes. I’d love to find a way to get the music off of them and onto my computer (and I know such technology exists, but I am cheap and haven’t bought one yet). I know I could probably buy all those albums online somewhere, but a part of me (the cheap part, probably) finds the idea of having to buy new versions of things I already own rather irksome. I know some people jump on the chance to buy all their favourite albums on various new media, but I just get frustrated. I can’t watch my Star Wars Collector’s Edition VHS tapes because our VCR starting eating tapes (R.I.P., Good Will Hunting), and from what I’ve heard about the BluRay version, there were…improvements…made that I might not enjoy.¹

That said, I do enjoy being able to listen to hundreds of songs on a device that hides in the palm of my hand. I can hardly remember what life was like before the internet. I don’t miss having to re-thread those beloved cassette tapes when they encountered a dying Walkman. Netflix is amazing, but I actually do miss browsing the video store, especially independent video stores that carried more than the usual fare.

There’s a lot to be thankful for in the technological developments of my lifetime. Somehow technology has smushed together my Walkman, telephone, computer, video game console, VHS player, diary, calendar, library, Rolodex, calculator, television, and newspaper and put it all on one device. Then it threw in a video calling app and instant messaging—things that didn’t exist at all when I was born. That’s pretty mind-blowing. It doesn’t leave much to miss.

I look forward to seeing what new innovations will be available to us over the next 34 years. But I won’t stop griping about how I have to pay each time to upgrade to a new media (damn you, Nintendo, for taking away my Wii games’ online functionality). I know that technology isn’t always improved for the sake of making it better. Sometimes it is “improved” just to make us buy new things.

¹Han shot first.

Resurfacing

After a long hiatus, I’ve decided that the only way to get back into writing is to…get back into writing. But for me that means just writing, not worrying about making my posts deep or important or relevant. So I’m going to try a little writing (almost) every day, probably using the Post A Day prompts from The Daily Post here on WordPress. What that means for whoever is still reading my blog is that you will certainly see a mix of topics, and my focus is going to be on writing for writing’s sake. When I’m not using the writing prompts, I might start throwing in some fiction here or there as well. Fiction is my first love and I’ve put it aside for too long.

So here’s to recovering a piece of myself and sharing it with all of you.

Occupy Beauty

How many people are actually as beautiful as the media ideal?  Not too many, I dare say.  A very small percentage, I expect.  I actually don’t know what that percentage might be, but I’m betting if we looked at the worldwide population (and especially if we do something daft like limit the “media ideal” to the North American/European ideal), it might be around 1%.

This of course makes me think about the Occupy movement and the idea of the 1% vs. the 99%.  (I know this is an imperfect analogy, but bear with me.)  The way I see it, the 99% of human beings who are not considered beautiful by the media aren’t therefore automatically ugly, even if that is what the beauty/dieting industries would like us to believe.

So I think the 99% of non-media-beauties need to Occupy Beauty.

Own your own beauty.  Recognize it.  Embrace it.  Celebrate it.

Better yet, learn to own the beauty in others as well.  Recognize the beauty in other human beings.  Embrace it.  Celebrate it.

Because all human beings have beauty in them—and I’m not just talking about “inner beauty,” either, whatever that’s supposed to be. I’m talking about physical beauty.  I truly believe that if we open up our eyes and really look at one another, we will see the beauty in every human being.

People of every age, every race, every ability, every size, every health level are beautiful.  People with scars, people with skin conditions, people who are tall, people who are short, those who are fat, those who are thin, those who have four limbs, those who have less: we are all beautiful.

I’m not talking about some kind of philosophical aesthetics here.  There are people who have spilled a lot of ink on the nature of Beauty.  Psychologists will tell you about how babies prefer pictures of faces that are more symmetrical than others.  I’m not trying to deny that there are people who are aesthetically more pleasing to look at than others.

What I’m trying to say is that human beings aren’t art objects.  We shouldn’t be judged by the philosophies of aesthetics.  A sculpture that lacks aesthetic qualities can be called ugly or deemed to be “not art.”  But a human being should never have their worth demeaned simply because they didn’t have the genetic good fortune to be symmetrical and have, I don’t know, “great bone structure” or something.

As a follower of Jesus, I find human value in the fact that we are all made in the image of God.  When you think about that, it’s pretty neat.  Despite the absolutely mind-boggling amount of diversity in human appearances, each one of us is made in the image of God (which probably says something amazing about the nature of God).  In my mind, that automatically makes us all beautiful.

Here’s the really neat part: in the Occupy Beauty movement, there is no “us” and “them.”  In many cases, being a part of the 1% isn’t the great privilege that it’s supposed to be.  Those who look like media beauties are often subject to more criticism about their appearances, and they especially suffer from the fear that that privilege of Being Beautiful might at any time be taken away from them (cue the Keats poetry).

But the 1% have the same right to Occupy Beauty as the 99%.  They, too, are—of course—made in the image of God and therefore are beautiful according to that standard.  When we recognize and celebrate the beauty in one another, we brush away the differences that are meant to keep us apart.

For I believe that it is not actually the 1% who are trying to maintain their position of privilege over and above the 99%.  I believe it is the beauty/dieting industry that is trying to keep the 99% in a place where we are always striving after that illusive 1% ideal, for the simple reason that they want to profit by our pain.

So, I implore you to fight any message that tells you, “You aren’t beautiful.”  Fight it with every fibre of your being.  Because you are beautiful, just as you are.  You don’t need anything—clothes, cosmetics, diets, anti-aging creams, muscle-building powders, hair dyes, whatever—to make you beautiful.

Today and every day, then, find a way to Occupy Beauty.

The Joy of Good Food

Like most people in North America, I don’t always make great choices about the food I eat.  Convenience foods make it too easy to eat things that are filling and strongly-flavoured but not necessarily nourishing.  When my husband and I are stressed or feeling lazy, we quickly fall back on frozen pizzas, oven fries and chicken strips, and other “easy foods,” as we call them.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I like those foods!  I also do consider them food.  I base this on the definition provided by one of my all-time favourite bloggers, The Fat Nutritionist.  She writes:

ALL FOOD CONTAINS NUTRIENTS. NUTRIENTS ARE GOOD FOR YOU. NO, REALLY. I’M SERIOUS.

I mean, how can  you not love her for that?  Now, stop giving me that face.  She also promotes intuitive eating, which at its core encourages people to listen to the cues their bodies are giving them about hunger, fullness, and what foods make them feel good and what foods make them feel bad.  Eat more of the foods that make you feel good.  Eat less of the foods that make you feel bad.

So, eating “easy foods” for a week usually burns us out.  We start feeling less-than-good as our bodies get too much salt, fat, and preservatives.  Usually that prompts a swing the other way, to eating foods that make us feel good.

This past week was a “good food” week.  We prepared and ate foods that made us feel good.  We made a kick-butt (and butt-kicking) crockpot full of spicy chili for supper last night, for example.  If it hadn’t been too hot for baking, we would have whipped up some homemade cheese biscuits to go with it.  Because…yum!

Honestly, eating good food prompts worship in me.  It reminds me of something said by one of my favourite preachers, Jonathan Martin.  He said that if you follow beauty, it leads you to Jesus.  Well, that’s my paraphrase of it, anyway.  One day about a week ago we were eating a great steak that we had marinated all day and it occurred to me that beautiful tastes are no different than beautiful sounds, beautiful pieces of art, or beautiful words.  The delicious steak, the juicy strawberry, the fresh-baked bread, the Thanksgiving turkey, the butter chicken, the mouth-watering kalbi ribs, the mashed potatoes, the mess of greens, the primavera sauce (are you hungry, yet?), the steaming soup, the bowl of pho, the toothsome spanakopita, the poutine with fresh cheese curds, or the delicately arranged sushi: good foods with great tastes are found all over the world.  They are beautiful.

That beauty leads me to Jesus.  It leads me to the one who created a world full of diversity—not only of edible animals and plants, but of cultures who find different delicious ways to prepare them.  It makes me praise the one who gave me a tongue to taste and a nose to smell these delicious foods, and who wired me to enjoy them.  No matter what “they” might say, food is so much more than just fuel.  If it was, cultures all over the world would not have spent so much creativity on making foods that are beautiful to see, smell, and taste.

I encourage you to plan to make a food you love sometime soon.  Think about the foods that make you want to stop and savour every bite.  Pick one out and go shopping.  Spend time with the people you love preparing that food and sit down at the table with them to eat it together with no interruptions from TV, cell phones, or computers.  If you are a believer, think about the way this food reflects the goodness of its Creator.  Think about all the people who worked hard to bring that food to your table.  Be thankful.  Be joyful.  You were made for this.

Now, you will have to excuse me, because I have to go make lunch. 🙂

If you feel like it, share YOUR favourite food in the comments section!

No More Silence

Part II: I Will Write About This

So I will share.  On May 3, 2013, I had had enough.  I was sick of feeling tired all the time.  I was scared because I was starting to forget things that would usually have come to mind easily and without effort.  I was having trouble concentrating or making decisions.  And because of my family medical history and my own blood test records, I had come to the conclusion that I had…hypothyroidism.

I told the doctor as much when I went in to see her that day.  I said, “my blood tests have been low in the past.  You said that we should monitor it, especially if I showed any symptoms.”  She asked me to list the symptoms.  As I did, she looked at my chart, at my previous test results.  Then she started asking questions about my life.  Did I have a job? (No.)  How much did I get out during the week? (Not much.)  Did I want a job and how was the job search going? (Yes, I did, but there are no jobs for me.)

“I’ll certainly send you in to take a blood test for your thyroid,” she said, “but I don’t think that it’s the problem.  I think you might have depression.”

I put the “I Can Handle This” mask on.  Nodded sagely.  Secretly suspected hoped that she was wrong.  Agreed to come back the next week.

I went for the blood test right away.  I would show her.  The test results would be positive for hypothyroidism and I would be vindicated.  It wasn’t depression.  Couldn’t be depression.  Why not?  Because hypothyroidism could be “cured” with a little pill every morning.  Depression…well, depression is a Mental Illness and can’t be cured. (Or so I feared.)

A week later I returned to her office chagrined.  I’d seen my test results online: not hypothyroidism.  Okay, then.  She was very nice about it (I have found the best walk-in clinic doctor in the world, to be honest).  There was no “I told you so.”  She prescribed me 10 mg of Celexa and plenty of fresh air and exercise and told me to come back in 30 days.

Less than a week later I was crippled by nausea and diarrhea.  (Interesting fact: the human digestive system has the same number of neurons as a whole cat.  Your stomach is a cat brain.)  Blessedly, it only lasted a few days, which really was a blessing since that weekend I headed to my church’s annual weekend retreat, and really didn’t want to spend it in the loo.

I spent the next month or so doing a lot of thinking.  A lot of remembering.  Depression.  It became clearer and clearer that what I had been experiencing with increasing severity was exactly that.  Because there was more to it than fatigue, forgetfulness, and a lack of concentration.  I had stopped enjoying the activities I normally enjoyed.  I felt terrible about myself.  I was sad almost all the time.  And although I didn’t want to kill myself, I didn’t especially want to live, either.  The terrifying truth was, I’ve been experiencing waves of these symptoms for years, probably since I graduated from undergrad in 2002.  But this time it was worse.  So much worse.

By the end of the 30 days, I really hadn’t experienced any noticeable changes.  She prescribed a higher dose: 20 mg, the standard therapeutic dose.  We delayed it a week since I was going on vacation to see my parents and feared a revisiting of the side effects from the month before, so I stayed on 10 mg one more week and then raised the dose.

Gradually, gradually, the lights have been coming on.

I know some people have a bias against medications for mood disorders (or anything, really).  I was afraid of the drugs, at first.  Afraid that they would flatten my mood.  Afraid that I would feel—or rather, not feel, if you know what I mean—like a zombie.

I’m not afraid anymore.  Those little pills are a Godsend.  I mean that sincerely.  They give me the perspective I need to recognize the thoughts that come from depression and to fight back against them.  They haven’t yet made me feel especially energetic, but I feel fatigued less often.  I am motivated to do things in a way that I wasn’t before (especially exercising, although a recent heat wave effectively put the kibosh on that).  I am enjoying activities again.

So I know that this depression thing isn’t going to own me anymore.  This morning shows me that I still have a ways to go, but all this writing is calming my heart.  I hope to do more of it over the next few weeks, but right now I don’t need to return to the pressure of trying to get a blog post out regularly.  I want to gain momentum, but the last thing I need is to introduce a source of guilt to my life right now.  For now, the writing should come from the I Want to Create well.

Part I: No One Else Has to Know

There are good days and there are bad days.  Sundays are often good now (a change from before the drugs).  Yesterday was a Sunday.  I actually felt happy yesterday: genuinely, unmixedly happy.  I had all these plans to begin writing again today, to share about my depression, to work on my resume, even.

Then Monday morning happened and as I consider writing a blog post that would share about my depression, I am paralyzed with fear.  I want to run from my computer, from my thoughts.  My throat feels choked and I begin feeling tired again.  Sad again.  Am I ever going to beat this thing?

Maybe it’s because I want to write something triumphant: “I beat depression.  I learned from my pain and now I’m writing again and all will be well.”

Maybe it’s because I know that once I write it down, once it’s published online, it’s out there more-or-less forever.  I have depression.  Now the world knows.

The clarity I had yesterday has been obscured.  Yesterday I could tell you that my depression is a condition that arises from some process or chemical in the body going awry, like arthritis or hypothyroidism or diabetes.  I was comfortable with the fact that my brain was trying to lie to me about who I am and that I had the power now (brought to me by citalopram) to combat those lies.

Today I am feeling tossed about by the lies.  I will never write anything worthwhile again.  I am ultimately uncreative.  The doctor said I didn’t need therapy, but she was wrong.  I need a therapist, if only to tell me how messed up I really am.  Even as I write these things down and identify them as lies, I am fighting the physical expression of the anxiety, fear, and sadness to which the lies are related.

But I guess there’s something else.  It’s a little triumph.  A whispered, “Ha!” instead of a conquering roar.  The lies told me I couldn’t possibly write today.  But look at this…339 words and counting.  It wasn’t what I planned to write, it may never be published as a blog post.  But maybe it will.  Maybe this is the way I need to share about my depression: raw and vulnerable, a bleeding out onto the virtual page.  Red, swollen eyes that expose to the world the truth about the chaos inside.

 

 

I wrote Part I before Part II but offer them here in reverse order for artistic reasons.

TL;DR: I have recently been diagnosed with depression, which is why I haven’t blogged in a long time.  I am now taking antidepressants.  They are starting to work.  This is good.