In my last column I mentioned my emerging attraction to the concept of “wellbeing” as a major determinant of overall health. Having declared myself a student of wellbeing, I’m discovering that its recipe is complex. As I work with others to help them chart a course that addresses illness or symptoms of un-wellness, I often wonder if our worries don’t have an inordinate influence. At the same time I wonder if our ambitions don’t get in the way as well.
I hang around with a group of individuals that think about these things. An image gets raised about being comfortable in our own skin. I’m thinking this image may be a window into the sources of wellbeing.
An image that may help us understand the sources of un-wellness in our lives is that of the roller coaster. When we’re at the top of the roller coaster we think well of ourselves. But this feeling is fragile. It depends on measures of wellbeing that can too easily be lost – such as the number of our possessions or our judgments of ourselves in comparison to others or of the size of our bank account. This is the place where our egos feed. When we are at the bottom of this roller coaster we dwell in fear – a place of inadequacy, insufficiency, insecurity, guilt, and shame. While we all know this place intimately, I worry we don’t know how to share it adequately. Sharing seems to be one of the few ways to diminish fear’s power over us. Unfortunately, the other self that rides the top of the roller coaster doesn’t think it would look good to allow others to see this part of ourselves.
As a fellow says, at the beginning of this journey to the place of serenity, the middle place is a spot we pass through briefly on our way from one extreme to the other. We begin to learn that the middle place, where we are right-sized between the highs and lows, is a source of wellbeing. How might this insight apply to the theme of Ages and Stages? Some of you know I was a pediatrician for 25 years before becoming a functional medicine practitioner. I spent many years watching families deal with the challenges of illness and abnormal growth and development. In my observation, when parents were able to help the child find the middle ground, things went well. What that middle ground looked like to me was a realistic acceptance of what is, and a place of genuine problem solving to get through each and every hard spot. What a beautiful path that can be when traveled well. I saw many families do it with grace and patience – and falls along the way of course. When things didn’t go well it was often because the parent was overly influenced by the need to be high on the roller coaster, or was depressed by the certainty that their life was destined to be full of pain and loss. Possibly the most common problem I saw was a consequence of the natural and instinctual desire on the part of the parents to protect the child. Clearly, protecting children is one of parents’ (and adults’) most important responsibilities. At the same time, helping children accept and cope is necessary, and often our desire to protect gets in the way of allowing them to find that middle ground – where how we look or what might happen doesn’t get in the way of doing the next right thing. Fear and worry for your child can elicit the stress response of fight or flight – neither of which is likely to help in the moment. On the other hand, peer support and sharing of the hard parts can be a powerful means of coping. I was witness to many families coping. I can say with confidence that the material possessions of the families had little to do with what part of the roller coaster they travelled. Their willingness to reach out and connect surely did.
To your health.