WHY OBSESSION WITH PHYSICAL HEALTH ISN'T HEALTHY
Obsession with physical health isn’t healthy.
There’s an old saying:
“Don’t use a hatchet to remove a fly from your friend’s forehead.”
Nobody likes flies on their forehead. But if you use a hatchet to try to get rid of it, the “solution” can be worse than the problem.
There’s a lot of focus on physical health these days.
Physical health is a good thing, obviously.
But it’s not the only thing.
A healthy body is a good thing.
But it’s not the only thing. This business here on this planet isn’t just about the body. It’s also about the mind, heart, and soul.
(If the word “soul” doesn’t sit well, maybe use “the deepest part of yourself.” Or, even “the whole self” could work.)
Whatever you call it, the basic idea is this: what ultimately matters isn’t just your physical body, the skin-wrapped package of meat and hair and bones that you can see and touch and smell. There’s also “you,” the one doing the touching, seeing, and smelling. The idea of intimacy can demonstrate this. After all, what is “intimacy”? “Intimacy” isn’t just mere physical closeness. It’s possible to be physically surrounded by a crowd of people, but feel a thousand miles away from all of them. Or, on the contrary: someone might be a thousand miles away physically, but feel “closer” to you than people right next to you. Intimacy isn’t closeness of physical bodies, it’s closeness of self.
The point is, it’s not solely about the physical body.
There’s more than just physical fitness. There’s also mental, emotional, spiritual, social, political, and societal fitness. And others.
Call it “existential fitness.”
Whatever words you might use to label it, the basic idea is a kind of fitness that includes all of these.
That is worth focusing on.
Physical pain might make a person mentally, emotionally, or spiritually stronger. Or, someone might be physically fine, but going through some difficult times emotionally, mentally, or spiritually.
To be painfully clear: someone claiming that mental, emotional, societal health and so on is important doesn’t mean that person doesn’t care about physical health. It just means that person is aware that physical health takes place in a bigger, broader context.
This might seem irrational to someone who is blind to that broader context. If someone is obsessed with the physical body, and only with the physical body, someone else who is focused on their mind, heart, soul and so on might seem insane. It’s the well-known Nietzsche quote: “…those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” It’s better to strive to hear the music than to shut down anyone who is dancing.
Who sees more?
Is it the person who is aware of the bigger picture that surrounds an issue, or the person who is narrowly focused on just one part?
A German Shepherd nuzzling a copy of War and Peace will experience the book on a certain level. A dog can grok the basic physical qualities of the book.
But of course, there are whole other levels. There are the ideas, insights, and emotional richness of War and Peace that a German Shepherd will miss. There’s more to War and Peace than just two pounds of paper and ink.
(Or so we’ve heard.)
If someone is focused on physical health, and only physical health while ignoring everything else, it’s not that this person sees more. That person sees less.
What we’re up against is reductionism.
When we reduce A to B, sometimes that means cutting the heart out of A. If we reduce War and Peace to just two pounds of paper and ink, we’re missing more than a little bit. We're missing the most important stuff. To reduce life to solely physical health makes the same mistake. The worst kind of reductionism is human reductionism.
To paraphrase Edgar Lee Masters, a ship is safer in the harbor, but that’s not what it’s built for.
Another old saying: to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
To a person who sees the world in one narrow way, the world will seem like a narrow place. It’s often too narrow. The solution there isn’t for the man to mash the world into a shape that fits into his tiny mental “nail” slot. The answer is for the man to widen his view.
If a fly is on my forehead, I’ll try to shoo it away.
If it’s a really determined fly, and if a friend decides to help me shoo it away, I might appreciate the help.
But if my friend suddenly picks up a hatchet, and tries to whack the fly on my forehead with that, well, the situation has now changed.
Suddenly, it’s not about the fly anymore.
It’s not that I’ve suddenly gone crazy and have started to love flies.
My friend might have the best intentions in the world. “I’m only trying to help you!” He might even sincerely believe that. But those intentions – how he feels about himself on the inside – only go so far.
If my friend starts chasing me all over the house, swinging his hatchet at me, breaking lamps and windows, putting holes in walls, and chopping down doors, that’s when I might say something along the lines of, “Why are you so focused on the fly, and only the fly? Anyway, thanks for trying to help me get rid of this fly – I appreciate it – but I don’t think I want your help anymore with this particular problem.”
Or something like that.
If he still keeps chasing me all over the house, destroying my entire house in the process, I’d have to come to the conclusion that he’s gone insane. The definition of “insane” in this context means “a state of being rigidly focused on one small slice of a situation and ignoring everything else.”
Or, maybe there’s another explanation.
Maybe there’s a hidden method in his madness.
Maybe he’s in cahoots with his cousin, who runs the only home-repair shop in town. Or he’s in cahoots with his uncle, who owns the only forehead-repair shop in town. Or, he’s in cahoots with his brother, who owns the only funeral shop in town.
If that fact comes to light, suddenly, his behavior might start to make sense. He’s trying to get rich.
Maybe there’s some grand conspiracy like that, or maybe not. Untangling whatever’s “really” going on can be sorted out later. Right now, the priority is for everybody to relax with the hatchets.
There’s another old saying.
“When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are his pockets.”
Maybe human nature is built in such a way that we’re all a little bit saint and a little bit pickpocket.
If that’s true, we shouldn’t see ourselves as just pockets. And we shouldn’t just try to pick our own pockets.
We probably don’t want to go through life seeing only a fraction of ourselves. Instead, we could strive to see the whole of ourselves.
Physical health is an important thing. But it’s not the only thing.