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Live to give

by Frank Forencich on December 26, 2011

 

“We are people through other people.”
Popular Nguni-language saying

 

Our knowledge is now mature. The formula is well known and for the most part, it works. We know how to create and maintain human health and performance. Assuming that you’re born with a decent set of genes and are raised in a fairly nurturing environment, it all comes down to a familiar set of basics: a good Paleo-style diet, lots of vigorous exercise, stress reduction, community and a sense of meaning. That’s pretty much it, and it doesn’t have to be done perfectly; there are millions of possible variations that deliver the same basic success. If you follow the formula, you’ll get healthier.

But then what? What are we supposed to do with our lives and our bodies after we’ve walked the path to health and fitness? We’ve sweated and studied, shopped and cooked, trained and meditated. We challenged ourselves and taken care of our bodies and then…what? What’s the next step in this journey? This is a question that we rarely hear answered, or even asked. We are so taken with the mechanics, the formulas and the how of becoming healthy and fit, we often fail to wonder why. So what is the point of it all? What is health for?

Of course, most of us are quick to point out the individual benefits that come from practicing a healthy lifestyle: We’ll look better and feel better. We’ll lose weight and tone up. Our skin will become smoother. Our athletic performance will improve. We’ll have more energy and enthusiasm. Our brains will work better and we’ll be able to stave off dread lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and cancer. And finally, we’ll be able to live a really long time and remain vital and active in our old age.

These are powerful benefits to be sure and good reasons to engage in healthy lifestyle practices but still, these are benefits that flow primarily to the individual, to the isolated and singular human body. But is this all there is? Is our entire health, medical and fitness enterprise merely about making better individuals?

The question becomes increasingly relevant when we realize that, past a certain point of normal human function, health and fitness becomes a surplus, a reservoir of physiological capability that can be tapped for all kinds of purposes. When we become physically fit, we gain a real kind of psychophysical wealth, an excess that can be used in any of a million different ways. We can use it to insulate ourselves against stress and the ravages of the modern world. We can use it to support us on incredible adventures. We can use it as a back-up as we extend ourselves into new challenges in any domain: physical, mental, environmental or spiritual. Or, we can use it to build tribe, community and culture.

Of course, the most common use of our health surplus, at least in Western culture, is simply to reinvest it in our individual bodies and lives. We build up our fitness levels through long hours of training, proper eating and lifestyle modification, then we simply recycle the payoff into more of what got us here–our individual selves. In the process, we become even stronger and more powerful. We see this approach in athletes and training buffs everywhere. It’s a standard method.

But as many athletes and fitness buffs come to discover, this kind of reinvestment in the self eventually runs its course. Over time, the returns begin to diminish and the process begins to feel less compelling. We recycle our health surplus into bodies, becoming ever stronger, and then one day, the whole enterprise begins to loose its meaning and its power. In the extreme, it even begins to feel pointless, maybe even absurd. Continuous reinvestment in our individual selves leads to a sort of health and fitness narcissism, an incestuous, self-obsessed venture that ultimately goes nowhere. And, in the context of an increasingly chaotic and distressed modern world, such continuous reinvestment in the self seems increasingly irrelevant. Does the world really need more uber-fit super athletes who are destined to live 100+ years? What for?

 

from me to we

So what else might we do with our health and fitness surplus? How else might we reinvest the psychophysical wealth that we have built up over long years of training and practice? One obvious alternative is to start investing in the broader reach of tribe, community and culture. After all, the need is strikingly obvious. Everywhere we look in the modern world, people are suffering in one way or another and many are in need of the most basic elements of living. There is plenty of work to be done.

The Barefoot Sensei has a profound teaching on this point. As he describes the training journey that extends across the lifespan, he tells us that we need to shift our attention “from me to we.” This is not to say that the “me” is unimportant. Of course we must strengthen and protect ourselves. We are born into this world as helpless infants, ill-prepared to function on the wild grassland or in the modern city. We need to strengthen our individual bodies and develop our individual powers. It makes sense that we would be selfish for a time, growing into our capability until we can stand on our own feet and meet the challenges of a diverse and occasionally dangerous world. But this trajectory of “me” eventually becomes a distortion and in the extreme, pointless. We must learn to turn it around, to spend our surplus on one another as we build the tribe that sustains us. We must invest in the “we.”

 

ubuntu

As we reinvest our health and fitness surplus into the lives of others, we also begin to change our sense of identity. We begin to think about ourselves as part of something larger, even as having an extended sense of physical body. This social-body-tribe orientation appears in many native cultures, but is most pronounced in the African tribal philosophy called ubuntu. (Pronounced uu-Boon-too.)

According to ubuntu, there exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond, that we discover our own human qualities. We affirm our humanity when we acknowledge that of others. Our sense of self is interdependent with tribe: “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Ubuntu recognizes the intrinsic value of all people, regardless of their wealth, health or rank. It focuses on commonality, not difference.

Ubuntu played a prominent role in the work of Nelson Mandela in the post-apartheid era, especially the landmark legal work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu described ubuntu this way:

“It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness, it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. The quality of Ubuntu gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.”

Ubuntu is not just idealistic Afro-hippie talk. It’s solidly supported by the latest findings in social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology. And it’s not just about charity, either. The tribal orientation described by ubuntu is massively practical, intelligent and functional. Obviously, we need one another to survive, just as we did on the mosaic grasslands of East Africa. And, it’s also the case that tribal orientations enhance individual health. Research consistently shows that traditional, tribal cultures have significantly lower levels of depression than highly individualistic societies. This suggests a powerful win-win, another kind of virtuous circle that brings rewards all around. When we take our health surplus and give it away, it may seem like a loss, but that’s short-sighted. In fact, that so-called “gift” actually goes into circulation, feeding the health of the super-organism we call tribe. And in the process, we are supported, we are nurtured, and we become healthier as well.

 

the gift of health

So, to return to our question, “What is health for?” I would propose what might seem a surprising answer. That is, “to give away.” Of course, we are conditioned to think of giving as a cost to ourselves, an expense and a loss. But this is a misunderstanding of our tightly interconnected social nature. When the state of your body is tightly linked to the welfare of the people around you, then giving is not a loss or an expense; it’s a gift that we give to ourselves.

So as we enter the new year, perhaps it’s time to start giving our health and fitness back to the world. Let’s turn things around, from “me to we.”

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