Health & Wellness Religion

Staying Healthy in Times Like These

Photo by Lumezia on Shutterstock
Written by Guy Nave

Allow me to begin by saying I am NOT a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or trained mental health worker. I’m just someone trying to figure out how best to navigate these crazy times we live in.

I teach at a small liberal arts college in rural Iowa. As I’m writing, students (and faculty) are preparing for a much-needed spring break. Typically around this time of year, both students and faculty begin looking a little frayed and frazzled as we all eagerly welcome the break.

In addition to needing a break from the stress of the academic school year, my students and I — like many other people I know — feel we need a break from life itself. Life is surrounding us with far too many stress-inducing stimuli.

News outlets are claiming Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine is how World War III begins. We’ve just entered the third year of a global COVID pandemic.

The pandemic of racism continues to tear our nation apart. Inflation is on the rise. Gas prices are at all-time highs. Many economists are predicting a recession. Political gridlock and division seem to be a way of life, and the global issues that confront us are overwhelming.

All of this stress has a way of taking a toll on our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Research and clinical studies suggest that 75% to 90% of all patient visits to clinics and primary care offices are related to stress and anxiety.

Clearly, part of the effort at staying healthy in times like these involves effectively managing stress and anxiety.

Our lives are comprised of many components. There is the physical component, the mental component, the emotional component, and the spiritual component of our lives. Staying healthy involves caring for all of these components.

Often when we talk about staying healthy we focus primarily on the physical component. Sometimes we hear references to “mental health” or “emotional health,” but rarely do we hear references to “spiritual health.”

Caring for our spiritual health starts with acknowledging that we are spiritual beings. I not referring to religious identities such as Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or even agnostic or atheist. I’m referring to the fact that just as we are physical beings, we are also spiritual beings.

From the beginning of humanity’s existence — before the existence of any religions — we were spiritual beings.

While we often fail to acknowledge the fact that we are spiritual beings, at some level, we demonstrate an awareness of this reality when we talk about someone being in “good spirits.”

Sometimes we will visit someone who may not be doing well physically, and we will comment about what good spirits they are in.

By saying this, we are acknowledging that their spirit appears to be doing well, even if their body is not.

So what does it mean to care for our spirit? Caring for our spirit involves feeding and nurturing our spirit with food that uplifts, encourages, and inspires.

As I try to navigate all of the stress-inducing stimuli currently surrounding me, I am reminded of a nearly two-thousand-year-old exhortation from a spiritual leader navigating the stress-inducing stimuli of an oppressive Roman empire:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

For me, caring for my spirit involves daily focusing on and practicing those things that are pure, just, honorable, pleasing and praiseworthy. It means taking a break from focusing on those things that are depressing, disappointing, discouraging, and frustrating.

This doesn’t mean putting our heads in the sand and ignoring (or worse, denying) oppressive realities. It means not allowing those realities to occupy every moment of our lives.

I’m sure we are all aware of people we really don’t enjoy being around because every time we’re around them they’re always complaining about something. They’re like Eeyore in the Winnie the Poor stories, constantly focusing on those things that frustrate, that disappoint, that discourage, and depress rather than focusing on those things that encourage and inspire.

Caring for our spirit involves feeding our spirit with food that uplifts us. It’s important to realize, however, that this food is not the same for everyone. What feeds and nurtures my spirit may not be the same thing that feeds and nurtures yours.

This is why it is important for each of us to discover the food that feeds and nurtures our own spirit. It might be getting out into nature for a walk or watching a sunrise/sunset. It might be spending time with family or friends. It might be meditation. It might be exercise. It might be laughter. It might be reading. It might be watching your favorite television show. It might be dancing. It might be a number of different things. The key is determining what it is and then making time to ensure our spirit receives that food, daily.

We often get so caught up with the busyness (and drama) of life that we fail to make time to ensure our spirit is fed daily.

While I am not a medical health care provider, it seems to me that the technological advances of the past century have changed the focus of healthcare from a caring, service-oriented model to a technological, cure-oriented model. The objective is to “cure” everything.

Technology has led to phenomenal advances in medicine and has given us the ability to prolong life. A prolonged life, however, is not the same thing as a healthy life.

Victor Frankl, the famous Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was a Holocaust survivor and the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote,

No cure that fails to engage our spirit can make us well.

Prolong living is not necessarily healthy living, especially if our prolonged life fails to engage our spirit.

Despite popular sentiment and perception, death and dying is not the pinnacle of unhealthiness. Dying is actually a part of living.

All of us are dying, and that’s not because we are unhealthy. It’s because we are living, and dying is a part of living.

A paradox of life is that we are at all times living and dying simultaneously. The way that we manage or balance these two aspects of life determines how healthy we are.

The question is, “are we able to navigate the way that we are living and the way that we are dying with ease?” In other words are we able to live (and die) with the absence of disease?

I would argue that staying healthy means learning to live with an absence of dis-ease — not an absence of illness, but an absence of dis-ease.

I would further argue that the presence of ease is a great promoter of health.

Are we able to live at ease regardless what the situation around us looks like?

Living at ease does not mean passively accepting various wrongs and injustices. It means not allowing those wrongs and injustices to occupy our way of living whereby we surrender our own well-being to those wrongs and injustices.

Many medical studies suggest that patients who are intentional in caring for their spirit are better able to be at ease in the presence of illness, pain, and stress-inducing stimuli. Studies indicate that people who care for their spirit tend to have a more positive outlook and a better quality of life.

Staying healthy in times like these — times of great stress and anxiety — involves caring for the whole person — the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.

Part of that care involves learning to reduce dis-ease in our life and learning how to promote a more ease-FULL way of living.

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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.

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