The Responsibility to Be Healthy

My father uses a metaphor of a motor to describe how people engage within their communities. He and his wife are dynamic presences on many boards of directors for causes they care about. They are busy people who fit lots of volunteer work into their busy lives. Although he would never celebrate himself, he is a motor that drives a number of causes forward and nurtures a lot of relationships. He is connected to his community and to his family in innumerable valuable ways.

There is no imperative to be connected, however. In fact, there is a trend towards isolation. Many Americans spend much more time communing with their screens than they do volunteering or connecting with people who are important to them.

My dad cautions us about becoming a motor that is running, but isn’t connected to anything. Although prevailing cultural trends may condone and even encourage consumerism to become “the purpose” of one’s life, that is corrosively destructive to our planet and actually injures the health of the consumer.

A 1965 Harvard School of Public Health Study found that those with close social ties and unhealthy habits actually lived longer than those with poor social ties and healthy habits. (It’s better to have both friends AND healthy habits.) They studied the impact of social connectedness on human health with 7000 people in California. (People who were isolated were 3 times more likely to die during the 9-yr study than people with strong social ties.)

Now, we have to be consumers in order to be alive. We eat, drive, heat our homes and have children. But what my dad is suggesting is that we each can also feel a sense of responsibility for taking care of more than just our own needs. That the investing in relationships, giving your time and attention, volunteering for what you believe in and doing good work is one of the most important purposes of being a motor in the first place.

That is to say– to consume enough to stay alive and be comfortable imparts some responsibility to put a load on your engine.

A lot of people share this sense of responsibility.

What is especially interesting to me is the underlying sense of responsibility to stay healthy in order to be able to carry a load on your engine.

Parents are especially familiar with this feeling, “I can’t afford to get sick, these children need me.”

However, increasingly, Americans are relinquishing their control over their health and relying on pharmaceuticals to keep their motors running, so to speak. There are many market forces at play that are conspiring to keep people addicted, tired, worrying and indebted so that they will buy the next product.

A population that is strung out is not a population that is prepared to put a load on their engines for the greater good! That is a concern, especially when you consider the huge environmental, social and financial challenges that are on our horizon.

This generation of children is the first generation of American children that is predicted to live sicker, shorter lives than their parents! (That’s us.) These are children of typical American parents who of course WANT their children to be healthy, but don’t know how to keep them healthy.

So if we feel a responsibility to be healthy enough to be helpful in the coming decades, it’s clear that we need to deviate from this norm.

A sense of responsibility can be a powerful motivator to make healthy choices. It’s what keeps you from drinking and driving, what makes you go to bed early before a big day and often what makes you put vegetables on the dinner table.

I would say it’s a wonderful “big picture” motivator– meaning it informs the values that create your life. Realistically, it’s not enough to keep you from eating a pint of ice cream when your pet dies (or deal with a great many other intense emotions that can overwhelm a healthy person.)

But it can motivate you to stop smoking, start exercising or give up fried food if those are in the interest of creating a better future for yourself and for the people and causes that rely on your presence.

By and large, Americans (New Englanders in particular) embrace the concept of personal responsibility. There is a readiness to pitch in, share the load and work hard.

With food, that sense of responsibility can mean watching heavy hitting films to educate yourself, (like Food, Inc., May I Be Frank, or Forks Over Knives) rather than watching that romantic comedy you want to see. It can mean being the socially awkward parent who eschews the nitrite hotdogs and the chocolate milk and agitates for better choices at picnics and potlucks. It can mean doing the hard work of finding recipes for food you’ve never tried before (like mochi, kombucha, seaweeds, amaranth, chia seeds, cacao nibs) and finding a way to prepare them. It can mean being “that one” at Thanksgiving, who insists on the free range turkey.

Hard work? Fine. Where we often get stuck is feeling bad about disrupting the food “status quo” in our families and communities. But remember how the status quo is literally shortening the lives of American children? We have to get over that.

Plus food, as you know, is an extremely emotional issue. The road to taking deep responsibility for one’s health can include multiple agitating confrontations with one’s reliance on comfort food. Cravings, rationalization, self-destructiveness, denial, rebellion…. It’s quite a ride!

Implementing the sense of responsibility to be healthy so that WE are solid resources for our future means making choices to protect and defend the purity of your food and water, your 8 hours of sleep, your regular exercise and regular solitude or spiritual practice.

If you see yourself and your children as crucial resources for your community, you merit the investment of time and attention to protect that critical resource.

When you get your motor humming and connected, we will all be grateful.


Holly Noonan writes about self-nourishment and food empowerment every month in her Mind Body Nutrition Newsletter.

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