Avoiding the Idol of Health and Wellness

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

Are you focusing too much on your bodily health?

I love health and wellness. Truly. I’ve been interested in nutrition and exercise and healthy habits for as long as I can remember and I’ve used strategies to improve my physical health as a means of managing my depression for years.

I’m a huge fan of taking great care of our bodies. In fact, I feel so strongly about the importance of balanced health and wellness that I founded A Thriving Catholic. I want to help others live healthier lives so passionately that I’m training to be an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

Yes, I love health and wellness.

And yet…

I recognize a trap.

A fallacy that so many people can fall into too easily.

The trap of believing that we somehow have so much control over our lives that we are basically invincible. The trap of believing that if we just master perfect nutrition, sleep, and movement, that we can most likely become superhuman and live (virtually) forever.

But why is this a problem? After all, shouldn’t we strive for longevity and optimum health?

Of course we should...as long as we can keep one thing in mind at all times:

None of us knows the day or the hour when our lives will be required of us

In other words, we have no control over when we’ll die. Sure, you can undoubtedly hasten your own death by developing a pack-a-day smoking habit or living solely on deep-fried everything. However, the fact remains that you still don’t know when those bad habits will fatally catch up with you.

The advice whispered in the ear of every new pope will serve us well here: “Memento mori” (Remember Death).

I’m not suggesting that we all need to walk around constantly obsessing over how we could drop dead at any moment--but what I am saying is that we need to be careful not to put too much faith in our bodily health.

A few incidents of the last week got me thinking about this.

Because, honestly, I’m prone to thinking more about my diet than my prayer habits sometimes. And occasionally, I need a bit of a reminder myself.

Last Saturday, I was blithely making my meal plan and shopping list for the week, meticulously fitting in vegetables and fresh fruit, thinking about how and when I’d make nutritious meals for my family in the coming week. I felt incredibly grateful for the opportunity to enjoy a healthy diet and to care for my family (food is my love language).

And then I got a call from my niece. Her voice was shaky, and she sounded scared. My sister-- her mom and my dearest family member--was in the ER with bleeding in her brain. We didn’t know the extent of the damage, what was causing it, or what could be done about it.

I felt shattered.

My sister is 15 years older than me and practically raised me. I grew up idolizing her. I lived with her my last few years in high school, and she encouraged me to go to West Point. She supported me through my two deployments; she was my rock when our mom died. She’s the glue of our family. I really can’t describe the extent to which we all turn to her, lean on her, and cherish her.

But now, she was suddenly in the neurological unit and she could just die. Just like that, she could be gone. Or, if she survived, she might suffer a debilitating stroke with life-altering severe complications. I was terrified and felt helpless.

I tried praying but was numb--I couldn’t form coherent words and could only repeat again and again, “Please, God. Please.”

I know he knew what I meant. Something along the lines of, “Please don’t let her die. Please protect her from harm. Oh, please, please, help my family through this. Please, may she turn to you. Please be with her and help her not to be afraid.”

I was inspired to send a quick text to my closest friends, all amazing women, asking for their prayers and was flooded with assurances of love and support. These are the types of women who don’t just say, “I’ll pray for you,” and never do--I knew they were storming heaven on behalf of my sister.

This story has a hopeful ending: the doctors pinpointed the cause of the bleeding as Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndrome (RCVS) caused by a reaction to medicine my sister was on to treat her Crohn’s disease. Thanks be to God, there is no lasting damage to her brain, and she was able to go home from the hospital. She’s still suffering from headaches, but God willing, they’ll improve (just in case, would you mind saying a quick prayer for her?)

Despite a positive outcome, I was definitely shaken out of my own complacency.

And a few days later, I had yet another reminder about the fragility of these mortal bodies of ours when one of my best friends shared what happened recently to her sister.

My friend's sister was at the beach on vacation with her family, just coming out of the water with her 2-year-old, when she dropped dead. Literally. She had a spontaneous massive heart attack and just dropped.

Praise God, she was resuscitated and taken to the hospital, where she underwent double bypass surgery and spent nine days recovering. At the same time, an incredible Good Samaritan helped care for her 9-month-old baby and toddler before the family could come to help.

The thing is, she had no blockages in her arteries, no warning signs, no indication whatsoever that this could possibly happen to her.

In fact, my sister was feeling particularly healthy and strong before her own unexpected brush with death.

What should we take away from all of this?

Our bodies are such a good gift from God. Such an amazing, wonderful gift. Indeed, our bodies are one of two critical components of our unique status as body-soul hybrid creatures.

But we absolutely must not forget that we also have souls, and the death of our bodies is inevitable. And frankly, quite often unpredictable.

So I propose that we take the absolute best care we can of the precious gift that God has given us. We should eat as well as we can, get good sleep, prioritize healthy movement, manage our stress, take good supplements, and drink lots of water.

But let’s not put our faith in any of these things. As baptized Christians, we have already been assured of eternal life through our faith in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. He is truly our only hope.

If you haven’t really and truly prayed in a while, I urge you to find about a 20-30 minute chunk of time in the next day or so that you can be alone and undistracted. It would be awesome if you could go to Adoration or be in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Tabernacle, but a quiet place in your home will work too.

Pour out your heart to God. Don’t try to use flowery language or get the words right. Make your only goal be to say only what you mean and to mean everything you say: in other words, your goal is complete honesty.

You may feel sorrow for your sins. That’s a good thing, really. Trust in God’s infinite mercy. Imagine God’s love surrounding you like a beautiful golden light, cleansing you and renewing you. Let yourself bask in his love and presence until your time of prayer is up.

Then, you may want to schedule a time to go to confession if you’re aware of mortal sins. If you’re not aware of serious sins, or if it hasn’t been long since your last confession, remember that worthy reception of the Eucharist wipes away venial sins.

And again, trust in Jesus and his mercy. This is so important for us to be reminded of again and again that Jesus had St. Faustina write the words “Jesus I trust in you” beneath the Divine Mercy image.

So how do we avoid making idols of our own health and wellness? By keeping our priorities in order. Jesus said that we shouldn’t worry about what we will eat or drink or wear because our Heavenly Father already knows that we need these things. But if we’re genuinely seeking “first His kingdom and his righteousness,” then all these things will fall into their proper place. (Matthew 6:31-33)

The only thing we know for sure is that you and I and everyone else are going to die (and pay taxes…), so let's not forget the reason for our hope. Let’s not be afraid of death--instead, let us be ready for it.

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