At VOUS, we have seven aspirational values that guide our staff. These are things we know we won’t always live up to but that serve as a compass to keep us on course and show us when we’ve drifted. They are:
Make It Better
Take It Personally
Each of these values reflects a unique facet of who we aspire to be as leaders. We will take time to talk through each of them in future conversations, but today I want to focus on the fifth on the list: Stay Fit. Stay Fit means we take responsibility for our own personal health. No one else can do this for us. Others can encourage, challenge and correct us, but ultimately only we can control how we steward our health.
“The first wealth is health.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Simply put, health is a state of wellbeing. In 1986, the World Health Organization defined health as “a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living” (emphasis added). I like that language. We don’t live to maintain our health; we maintain our health so we can fully live. Health is not an end in itself. It is the means to the lives we desire to have. I believe that health is one of the most critical concepts for people to understand and one of the most important outcomes for us to pursue. If we can become and remain healthy, we will free ourselves up to live to the fullness of our potential.
So what does health look like? Of course, there is no one general answer we can apply to each specific case. What health looks like will vary with the details of your body, personality, and circumstances. But there are general principles that can be applied in all cases. For all of us, health entails freedom from illness and injury. The conditions for creating such a state, along with our experience and expression of health, differ from person to person, but the state itself is recognizable across the board.
Our habits are the key to our health. Our health isn’t the result of what we do occasionally, it is the result of the actions we perform consistently. Since none of us can know what tomorrow holds, the best investment we can make is to build healthy habits today. Yet often we are intentional with the habits we are building in some areas of our lives while neglecting others. The goal is not to be strong in one area at the expense of another. It is to be healthy as a whole human being. That means extending that intentionality to each key area of our lives.
Here are three areas in which you should be building healthy habits. Each is critical on your path to health. All three are interconnected and interdependent.
“Health is not valued till sickness comes.” Thomas Fuller
The most obvious, visible, and natural part of yourself to consider is your body. There is no avoiding this facet of who you are. You feel the fullness of its sensory experience at every waking moment of every day. The scents, tastes, feelings (pleasant and painful), assault our senses continually. Odds are, you aren’t going to forget your body. But, of course, that inescapable awareness does not mean that you are intentionally taking care of your body. Like everything else, doing that will require consistent effort and energy.
The two fundamental habits to build in this area of your life are diet and exercise. Again, I couldn’t and wouldn’t tell you how to eat or exercise. How you will do this is up to you. There are countless resources for you to draw on—books, classes, articles, friends, professionals. Dialing in your diet and exercise routine will take time. Each new experiment will provide you with new information that will help you to tweak and adjust until you find something that works for you. And then, in time, that old plan won’t work anymore and you’ll have to experiment again. There is no such thing as the one right thing to do in this category. What is most important is that you take control of your eating and exercise habits and learning from your experiences. You will never regret the sacrifice and investment required to get this right in your life.
“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” Mahatma Gandhi
But you are not just a body. You are a body with a mind. What exactly that means or how it works is not important for this conversation. All I mean by the term is the part of you that includes your thoughts, desires, and emotions. In scripture, this is often referred to as your soul. While we may disagree on the specifics, all people have an implicit understanding of this part of the self. In the same way that we experience an endless barrage of physical sensations, we simultaneously deal with an endless string of thoughts and emotions. This is such a fundamental part of the human experience that we rarely stop to reflect on it.
Habits of the mind are a little bit harder to narrow down. There are lots of things we can do to invest in our mental and emotional health. The way we care for our body is one of them. One of the most powerful ways to shape our thinking is through reading. It can be difficult to direct our thoughts in a particular direction by sheer force of will, but reading a book with valuable information or a healthy perspective on a subject can do the heavy lifting for us. Reading is literally taking our minds through the clear, reasoned, organized thoughts of another person. A good practice for promoting emotional health is healthy processing. Complaining and nagging are destructive, but honest sharing with a friend or family member will go a long way in keeping us emotionally healthy. We cannot afford to take care of our bodies but neglect our minds.
“All habits gather, by unseen degrees, as brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas.” John Dryden
But you are not just a body with a mind. You are a spiritual being. This is the part of the self that modern society often neglects or flat out denies. Again, without arguing over the mysterious question of what and where your spirit is, this term simply refers to the deepest part of who you are. The picture of a human being painted in the New Testament is not one of a body with a soul, but rather a spirit with a soul and a body. This is more than semantics. It reflects a belief that it is the spirit of a person that is his true self. The spirit is the part of a man that animates and sustains him. The Christian understanding is that even when the body fades, the spirit persists.
If all this is true, then habits of the spirit are the most important habits we will ever develop. The good news is that these habits are actually less opaque than habits of the mind. To the religious and irreligious alike, they will be familiar. Classic spiritual habits are the reading of scripture, prayer, and community. Reading scripture may seem difficult or tedious to some, but the truth is it is marvelously straightforward. If you can read, you can read scripture. We can all grow in our understanding and application of scripture, but reading it is a good start. Prayer is what we call conversation with God. This open, ongoing conversation is a crucial part of our spiritual health. Like reading scripture, it is fairly easy to do. Mostly, it requires effort and intentionality. We don’t have to worry too much about feelings or results. We just need to keep talking and keep listening. And all of this is made easier and richer in the context of community. Other people encourage and spur us on in our pursuit of spiritual health and maturity. Their involvement brings accountability and prevents isolation.
What these habits will look like in your daily life is up to you. The possibilities are endless. The process is invigorating. The results are worth the effort. Don’t be intimidated by the mystery or difficulty of it all. Enjoy the journey of discovering what does and does not work for you. Decide quickly so you can adjust and improve. The longer you wait to do something, the more time you will spend doing nothing. Perfection is impossible, but health is attainable. Don’t get caught up in your failures or inadequacies. Keep looking ahead and allow that picture of what is possible to drive you to make the small adjustments today that will lead to big changes tomorrow.