Think back to the last time you had a major cold or flu – the last time you had a fever and body aches so bad your hair hurt. The thousand daggers in your throat, the puffy, burning eyes, the roaring headache, the plugged sinuses and clogged lungs, the crippling fatigue. In the throes, you likely couldn’t imagine (as most of us do) what it was ever like to be healthy. You could scarcely remember what life had been like three days ago when you were lifting weights, lifting your kids, laughing at work, entertaining at home, sleeping soundly. Fast forward, and it’s a Bermuda Triangle of mental discouragement and physical misery. And this is just a cold or flu… (Many people deal with so much worse….) Still, it’s a relatable illustration of an all too common truth: we tend to take our health for granted until it’s suddenly gone.
Three days prior we may have felt good about our workout performance – or finished it off grudgingly (or opted to skip it entirely.) We may have gotten out of bed noticing we’d had a pretty good night’s sleep – or already been too lost in negative anticipation of the work day ahead to let ourselves feel good. We might’ve appreciated having the energy to keep up with the kids during some sledding or tag at the park – or felt distracted by stress and spent much of the time managing the world on our phones or running through imagined conversations in our heads. Is anything sounding familiar? In a regular day we barely if at all notice our health – until or unless its limitations disrupt our routine or intentions.
What does it mean to be thankful for your health? A lot, I think. At its most basic level it can be a “There but by the grace of God go I” feeling we get when someone we know dies of a heart attack or gets cancer. The news jolts us into awareness of our mortality, health being what keeps us on the other side.
Being thankful for our health, however, means more than gratitude for being alive itself. On yet another level, it means appreciating the capacities allowed by our health – the cognitive ability to practice our profession and remember our children’s names, the physical ability to walk up six flights of stairs when the elevator is being serviced (or when we just feel like it). It’s the security of knowing we can travel to remote places and deal with whatever conditions we encounter. It’s the freedom to put on a pair of skates or skis and try something new without getting wrapped around fear of frailty. It’s about confidence that we have the strength to move most of our own stuff when need arises and take care of our children, tend to our property, and still have energy to enjoy something of everyday life.
Yet, I’d suggest health is even more than capacity itself – more than living, more than functioning. By extension, being thankful for our health means recognizing the deeper dimensions of health itself.
A couple of weeks ago I differentiated health as an absence of obvious symptoms from vitality as a kind of full actualization of energy that feeds all areas of self and life. When we look at health from this vantage point, the question becomes whether we’re living out our well-being. If being grateful for something means appreciating it, are we living in full appreciation of our health or are we taking it for granted, leaving many layers of experience and capacity unexplored – and thereby, unacknowledged.
I’m not trying to evoke any metaphysical suggestion here, but humor me with the illustration for a moment. Let’s say you gave two people the same gift. One person graciously thanked you in the moment but put it in the basement where it collected dust for a few decades. The other offered the same gratitude and put it in his/her living space, using it every day in some way for those decades. Who is more thankful, appreciative of the gift?
I think it’s common to give lip service about gratitude for our health. We’re thankful of course – in theory. Might I suggest that gratitude is something we discover through practice in a lifetime of layers with deeper knowledge and familiarity, through challenge and peak moments – maybe not unlike a rich relationship.
Sometimes I think people cut themselves off from this depth of gratitude by living outside of their bodies to some extent – as a result of trauma, distress or distortion. They take a parsing, hypervigilant, corrective perspective on their bodies and their condition – the body as something to be whipped into shape, deprived, pushed and monitored. That kind of animosity, I’ve found, tends to camouflage some sort of deep-seated fear.
When we allow ourselves to wholly appreciate our health – appreciation being the full living out of gratitude, we use and develop our infinite capacities and likewise find infinite joy in its pleasures. Let’s face it – a utilitarian take on health cuts our physical experience off at the knees. We can not only allow ourselves to enjoy the little things – the sun on your back, the feeling of human touch, the runner’s high, a nap’s recharge, a holiday meal’s flavor, the mind’s recollections. In combination with our physical capacities, they’re all part of our inclusive health.
As so many of us celebrate Thanksgiving here in the U.S., I’d offer this challenge to everyone today. Make the choice to cultivate gratitude for your health. Be more present to your health every day. Explore and expand your abilities. Live out your appreciation for your physical potential by developing it action by action, experiment by experiment. Embrace the small pleasures and challenge yourself to reach for even intimidating achievements and intermittent euphoria.