Last week at a breakfast meeting with three healthy women friends who are each more than 20 years younger than I am, I was stunned to watch one of them take a box out of her purse and swallow 10 or 12 capsules and pills of various sizes and colors. Seeing my surprise, the others laughed and told me that they, too, take a handful of pills with their breakfast coffee, among them ginseng, ginkgo, CoQ10, soy concentrate, multivitamins, megaminerals, hormones, and the diet supplement Metabolife. "Health is everything," one of them told me.
But perhaps not. I have a chronic disease as a lifetime companion. I have survived eight major surgeries and several minor ones, and somewhere there is a stack of medical charts with my name on them that is by now taller than I am. Yet everyone at that breakfast table takes more pills every morning than I do.
I wonder how we have become so worried about our health and so dependent on medication to support ourselves. When did life become a disease that we need to prevent? ...
Most of us live homeless, in the neighborhood of our true selves. A few years ago, I asked a group of women to prioritize a list of goals according to what was most important to them in their professional lives. The list included such things as approval, love, power, fame, comfort, adventure, friendship, security, respect, influence, kindness, wisdom, meaning, and money. Then I asked these women to prioritize the list of goals according to what was most important to them personally.
Of the 300 women who did this, only 10 came up with the same list. Most were stunned to discover that they believed one way and lived in quite another. Their work actually violated their personal values. While we may not know the long-term effects of many of our medical choices, we can all choose to live closer to our true selves than we do. The stress of living divided like this has a far greater impact on our lives and even on our health than not taking the right pill.
Our health is important but not as a major focus of our lives. We may just need to care for our physical well-being in 5 simple and commonsense ways:
1. Don't be the first on the block to take a new medication. Wait and see.
2. Eat a good and balanced diet as a source of the vitamins and minerals you really need. The vitamins in food may be far more useful to your body than those you presently buy in bottles.
3. Read before you eat. Avoid foods that have chemicals in them or on them.
4. Pay more attention to your environment, to what you put on your lawn and paint on your walls.
5. Listen to yourself more closely and to the life experience of other women. Respect the wisdom that has helped others to live well.
There are many things we can control that make us less vulnerable to illness. None of them comes in a pill. We can learn to understand ourselves better, to know what will fulfill us and to pursue that in large and small ways no matter what others think. We can reach within to find a place of personal truth and live from there. And no matter if we are sick or well, we can learn to live passionately.
After 50 years of Crohn's disease, I can now say that perfect health is not the sine qua non of a good life. The wisdom to live well is not about holding on to everything you have at all costs. Living a full and rich life may require us to focus beyond our physical health and learn the direction in which our wholeness lies—to take risks and let go of what we have outgrown, over and over again, until all we are following is our own dream of ourselves.
Click here for more from Oprah.com's 2011 Feel Good Challenge
From the January 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!