Wellness, Death, Blame, and Control

Yesterday I had a wonderful visit with two women I love and respect. We gathered to talk about forming a study group around my book, Phe, but ended up discussing all manner of things.

One of them works as a physical therapist, who has done wonders for my own shoulder issues, and shared with us that there is an undercurrent in the wellness industry around blame and shame. The motivating force is a tendency to lay blame on individuals who are not finding “success” in their wellness routines. In other words, they exercise, eat well, take vitamins, but become sick or injured nonetheless. Rather than saying to them, “We are still human and cannot escape the deterioration of our bodies or our susceptibility to illness or disease,” it is inferred or even explicitly communicated to sick and/or injured people that they must have done something wrong to find themselves in such a state – they didn’t take the right vitamins or do enough yoga or eat enough kale or chose the wrong brand of supplements or…or…or…

This same habit extends beyond the wellness industry and community into our wider American culture concerning death. When a person dies, the people around them reach for an explanation and often blame. If they die of a heart attack, then they must have been eating foods that weren’t healthy or came from a family that suffers from heart disease. If they die of cancer, there must have been carcinogens they unknowingly or knowingly consumed in some way. If they die of an accident, someone has to be to blame, especially when those deaths truly are accidental. We want to find negligence on the part of some corporation or another on which to lay the blame – they made a faulty part or failed to label a product appropriately (when I used a hormone patch for a while years ago, I giggled every month when I took it out of the wrapper, which had in bold lettering “DO NOT TAKE ORALLY.”).

When someone gets sick, there must be a reason and with that reason comes blame. When someone dies, there has to be an explanation that allows us to lay blame on the person who dies, someone else near the person who dies, or on a corporation for being negligent.

“Why? Why did this happen?”

How often have you heard this or said it? In spending time with grieving families or people undergoing treatment for a disease, I have heard this question time and again: “Why?” Being a priest, people ask this question of me not rhetorically but wanting a real answer. I admit to choosing the softer, “I don’t have an answer for that question. I’m sorry. But I’m here.” rather than the more honest, “Because shit happens. It’s life. People get sick. People die. It’s as much a part of living as everything else and lots of times there isn’t someone to blame or some big explanation.”

As you might imagine, the latter version would come off as quite unfeeling and “un-pastoral,” so I keep it to myself.

The deeper question of “Why” is, “Why do we want to lay blame on someone or something so badly?”

The answer is simple and human, if uncomfortable: Control. If I can find a source to blame for someone else’s disease, discomfort, or death, then I can take steps to mitigate that cause in my own life, therefore giving me control and allowing me to avoid their same fate.

We are human. We are in the business of self-protection and survival. Blame names the source of a problem and gives me power by allowing me to avoid that source in my own life. It affords me pride and arrogance by looking at the sick or departed with a “tsk tsk, they should have known better…like me.” No, people don’t actually think this (well, maybe they do sometimes) but there is a force in our subconscious that does and uses it as motivation or, at the very least, to feed our ego for being superior by not making the same mistake.

I like to think I have power and control over my body and my life. And there is some truth in it all. We know if we eat more foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber and less foods high in fat and cholesterol, our bodies will be healthier. If we exercise during the day, our blood pumps faster and we shed stress hormones, allowing us better wellness. If we lift heavier things or do resistance training, it helps our bones be stronger for longer.

However, none of those things guarantee we won’t be diagnosed with a debilitating and/or terminal disease and absolutely cannot save us from death. Life and death happen. But to accept that is to acknowledge we have less power and control than we would like.

The anger that comes with blame also allows us to sidestep the more uncomfortable emotions of grief and sadness. If we can find a person or company to blame, then we can sit in the secondary emotion of anger, seething and resenting, holding back the painful rush of grief and sadness. People will live in this space of anger for years, even decades. The grief of losing a loved one, especially suddenly, can feel too much to bear but anger brings with it righteousness, control, and reason. It’s more comfortable and familiar. Crippling grief, however, recommends we are out of control, overwhelmed, or weak.

We could do better by ourselves and each other by letting go of this habit. Letting go of control, or at least the illusion of it? Yes. People get sick. People die. Accidents happen with no blame to be borne. Should we make attempts to live a healthier and more well-balanced life? Yes. And that should include helping each other emotionally by not feeding misplaced anger and instead holding space for one another in grief and sadness, Wellness includes emotional and spiritual health and we must affirm for friends and families, for ourselves, that grieving a loss means vulnerability and powerlessness.

The people we love who experience loss will have plenty of people around them to affirm their desire for blame and need for control. My hope is that more of us will take on the discipline of being the voice and the presence that, instead, creates room for our loved ones to feel safe enough to set foot into the powerlessness of grief, which then allows them to step further along the path that will lead them to peace and comfort.

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