health is a dangerous idea 

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When the world goes crazy, we look for things that promise safety and security. We need a refuge, a touchstone and a place where we can do our work without complication. And that’s why a lot of us get involved in health and healing professions in the first place. Health sounds like one of the safest, least controversial topics under the sun, something everyone should be able to agree on. If we can just focus on health, we’ll be safe. 

But all is not what it seems. In fact, when we take a closer look, health turns out to be one incredibly messy, challenging and extremely inconvenient business. By definition, health asks us to focus on the whole. The immediate local body is obviously a big part of that totality, but it’s only a part. In fact, both ancient wisdom and modern science both tell us that health doesn’t stop at the outermost layer of our skin. In other words, our bodies are continuous with the world. They includes our life supporting systems and in a very real sense, the entire world. 

The challenge begins with our personal experience. When you’re healthy, you feel the vitality and wildness of life coursing through your tissue. You’ve got a surplus of energy to spend on engagement, exploration and curiosity. And as a healthy animal, you start asking questions about the state of your world. You wonder why there’s so much lifestyle disease and why so many people are physically disengaged. You wonder about epidemics of depression and anxiety, and the destruction of the natural world. You ask some pointed questions about our evolutionary history, our food, our water and the habitat that make it all possible. 

Before long, you start to realize that the very things that sustain your life–all human life in fact– are under direct, imminent threat. Because you’re intimately connected to these systems, you experience the damage to the biosphere as damage to your own body. And because you’re healthy, you’re not about to take this predicament lying down. In fact, you might well experience what author Christopher Manes has called “green rage.” You’re motivated to act. In this way, activism is an inevitable consequence of health. 

This is what makes the word so inconvenient. Health widens the scope of our attention and in the process, demands that we take stand up and speak out. In the process, it disrupts a host of cultural assumptions about who we are and how we ought to be behaving in the world. It demands that we question entrenched attitudes, narratives, rituals and institutions. It compels us to take a hard look at things like capitalism, corporate dominance, affluence, technology, social hierarchy, work and governance. Most importantly, it demands that we examine our relationships to the Earth and each other. In short, it calls into question just about everything that we’ve created since the dawn of agriculture, some 10,000 years ago. In this respect, health can be a profoundly subversive activity.

If we’re going to be whole, we’ve got to be engaged in the world. And that means acting in defense of those processes that keep us alive: especially our habitats and our communities. In this sense, activism is just as vital to good health as exercise and good eating. There can be no hiding out in our own personal welfare, or even in the welfare of our immediate circle of family and friends. To be whole and complete, we’ve got to sustain our world. For our bodies to be healthy, the whole must be healthy. Health isn’t just a state of body and mind; it’s a call to action. Be prepared to engage.

Frank Forencich