Approach to a Healthy Lifestyle: Integrity or Self-Righteousness?

Albert Camus, the 1957 Nobel laureate in literature, said, “Integrity has no need of rules.” [1] These few words portray an instinctive sense of honoring one’s own values without the need of regulatory governance to direct one’s actions. Integrity itself implies wholeness, completeness, a perfect condition, soundness, and uncorrupted virtue. If one applies Camus’ words and the implications of integrity as they relate to health, inspiring ideas emerge. For example, a healthy lifestyle is lived out simply because one instinctively knows and enjoys both the process and the consequences of the various body systems working in sync or in a sinless environment, completeness, wholeness, perfection and virtue.

What is Integrity? Webster defines integrity as “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.”[2] Within the Seventh-day Adventist culture, as it relates to reaching for and maintaining wellness, the idea of a “code” fits quite nicely. The SDA understanding of this code includes no unclean meat, abstinence from alcohol, no tobacco use, sex within marriage, drinking plenty of water, sunshine, exercise, absence of gluttony, adequate sleep, and, to summarize, honoring our Creator with healthy bodies. When one follows all these components, various responses can occur. For the purposes of this essay I will focus on two responses, integrity and self-righteousness. What is Self-Righteousness? Self-righteousness is defined by Webster as being convinced of one’s own righteousness especially in contrast with the beliefs and actions of others; being narrow-mindedly moralistic.[3] There have been precious few Seventh-day Adventists whom I have had contact with who demonstrate a healthy lifestyle without self-righteous characteristics. On the rare occasions I have met such SDAs, my motivation to improve my lifestyle has been raised significantly and I have not felt coerced into making lifestyle changes. Sadly, though, most of us have been the recipients of a self-righteous approach to health evangelism by well-meaning individuals. It is easily spotted and does not foster integrity in one’s health goals. With apologies to the influential Christian writer Madeleine L’Engle, an antagonistic paraphrase of her work demonstrates the results of a self-righteous approach.

We push people away from Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, and by showing them a gloom that is so unappealing that they want with all their hearts to have nothing to do with it.

This is a very strong, negative over-statement, used to develop the point that all too often SDAs arrogantly push others to practice healthy lifestyles as they do.

Why is it that SDAs demonstrate self-righteousness toward health? How did we come to have this approach when promoting a healthy lifestyle to others? Perhaps this method is related to how the SDA culture interprets or goes about living out righteousness by faith. After all, the “understood code” within Adventism is a list of do’s and don’ts. For much of my life I have struggled with the semantics frequently used to describe or explain what actions I should do to live healthfully. Focusing on doing or not doing provides an inner sense of self-achievement, rather than an external sense of how healthful living points one outside of self to God and others. The language we use when speaking or writing about health typically includes little about what health has to do with our having a meaningful relationship with God, other than our bodies being the temple of God. Surely, there must be a way for the healthy lifestyle topic to be spoken or written about in a relational, non-coercive way, rather than a list of what one should do or not do in a cold, impersonal environment.

The natural course of this idea compels a deeper contemplation of the topic by asking: What would integrity in healthful living look like in the context of relationship? Some ideas that come to mind are: 1) use the time being physically active with a friend to focus on the friendship and on what is important to him/her; 2) wait until asked to talk about one’s routines for a healthy lifestyle; 3) seek divine help to integrate a healthy lifestyle into relationship with God and others without reference to a do’s and don’ts list; 4) lead a healthy lifestyle by example only without “pushing” others to do the same; and 5) refrain from criticizing others’ eating and sedentary habits by drawing attention to other areas of interest to them.

The difference between living out a humble, wholesome way of life and living out coercive, critical, self-righteous behaviors is subtle yet profound. The well-meaning individual who shines the spotlight on his or her do’s and don’ts by frightening others with the consequences of their actions is ineffective. The quiet practice of a robust and well-rounded way of life speaks loudly of one’s integrity to those observing from a distance.

As a diabetes nurse educator in an SDA medical institution, I am sensitive to forcing patients to reach for the SDA interpretation of an ultra-healthy lifestyle in order to manage their diabetes, with the exception of those who seek it. For some, that path is overwhelming if not unattainable. But any steps achieved towards a better lifestyle, even baby steps, make a positive impact toward further improvement, and demand praise and recognition for the hard work performed.

The “diabetes police syndrome” is rampant in family members of individuals with diabetes. These well-intended families seek to control, harass, judge, and place fear into the one with diabetes when they are seen eating the wrong foods, or not exercising. In essence, the family is placing themselves in a “self-righteous” mode by inferring that they have the answers for taking care of diabetes. The diabetes educator is then given the task of educating the family to be supportive and encouraging. The person coping with diabetes is much more likely to change their behaviors when surrounded by a positive and caring family. Integrity is fostered and the patient and family are functioning in a hopeful, achieving environment.

To reconcile with Madeleine L’Engle, I will conclude by quoting her. She instills a desire to interact with others in a manner consistent with integrity.

"We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it."[4]

When others observe a healthy lifestyle lived out without show, the influence is quiet, yet positive and powerful.

ENDNOTES [1] http://thinkexist.com/quotations/integrity/2.html [2] www.Merriam-Webster,com/dictionary [3] Ibid. [4] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 2001) 140-41.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2401
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