This year, I’ve been making a concerted effort to improve my health, especially regarding the digestive issues and migraine headaches that have plagued me for almost half my life. With a number of transitions in my life going on, including a move to Switzerland at the same time as going through menopause , things really seemed to fall apart, and I couldn’t any longer just push through. So maybe one reason I chose “connect” as my word this year is because I feel as though I need to put myself back together.
For a while I was floundering and quite discouraged, but things are coming better into focus. I’ve connected with some ideas that do make a difference, and am at the same time committed to listening to my own body’s wisdom and not what any expert, no matter how qualified and experienced, tells me to do. That is the most important meaning of “connect” for better health, I believe.
Changing my diet was necessary and also hard and confusing. I think I’ve figured out what works for me, and I will write more about that another time. I wrote recently about the obstacle of binge eating disorder that was impeding my health for a long time, and making that mental connection has been a big step.
But I don’t want this to be a food post. There is another kind of connection that has frequently come up in my reading about health, food, and bodily processes, often mentioned as a side note, but that I think is actually central. This is the role of stress in health issues, and the role of healthy human relationships in relieving and protecting us from stress. Humans are a social species. For much of our evolution we lived in small groups where we knew and were known by everybody, providing mutual protection and support and belonging. No doubt there was conflict and tension, but the relatively naked, defenseless humans simply would never have survived without evolving the ability to work together, bonding with and supporting each other.
Our first instinct upon sensing danger, in fact, is neither “fight” nor “flight,” but “flock” — look for our human companions, feel ourselves in connection with them. Touching another human sets off a physio-chemical reaction that is soothing and comforting.
Our modern condition of lonely individualism stands in complete contrast to this history. The dangers may be less physical and more mental than when we lived in caves, but they are none the less experienced by the body as threats, and lacking our social support system, it’s as if we are all alone and having to face a raging wild animal lurking on every corner, as one book I read put it. The relationships that we do have are often fraught with misunderstanding and violence, the kind of connections that produce rather than relieve stress.
This is a situation that cannot help but produce bodily ill-health. Our bodies, which evolved in completely different conditions, are now being challenged as never before. No wonder rates of depression, suicide, and addiction are spiraling upward, as well as metabolic syndromes like obesity and diabetes. No wonder people tend to wall themselves off in like-minded communities and refuse to see the other as human, trying to limit themselves to safe relationships in a bid for survival. No wonder those who “go it alone” tend to be cynical and pessimistic, seeing a grim future for humanity. What else is there for us to look forward to, if we don’t want to go back to being cavemen?
I don’t see it that way, because I think humans are called to come through this age of chaos and darkness and create a new source of light. I think that from the depths of loneliness and despair, we can find each other again, and make new connections that are not only based on the comfort to be found in tribe and family and inherited togetherness, and are also not based on othering and scapegoating other humans.
There was a time, coinciding with my years of ill-health, when I was simultaneously drawn to and afraid to really trust or open up to other people. I hovered around them, silently pleading to be accepted, not speaking up for myself when I was stepped on or hurt. I permitted unhealthy, unsupportive relationships to persist, because I was desperate to have any kind of relationships at all. I saw this as a weakness, a parasitic dependency in myself, and it became another source of shame, reinforcing my silence and distrust, and the bodily processes that went along with them.
That I do not think this way any more is largely due to the years I spent living and working with developmentally disabled individuals. Ironically it was these people, labeled as incurably sick and defective by “normal” society, who freed me from the delusion that dependence on other humans is a weakness. It’s just who we are, under the surface defenses we put up to protect ourselves, in the absence of our tribe. And once I saw that, I was no longer afraid to speak up for myself, or for other vulnerable people. That allowed me to move toward health, slowly but surely.
When we connect to the human under the surface, knowing we cannot survive alone, acknowledging our need for support and solidarity, we are strong. When we find someone in whom we can trust, even if that someone is ourselves, it is healing. And when trust flows from the depths of the heart toward the creative power of the universe, it forges a bond that nothing can break. This is the health that I now seek to connect to.