Healthy living for the here-and-now

Going grocery shopping when I was a child, my parents avoided checkout-line conflict by allowing me to choose one candy bar as a treat. I’ve continued the tradition as an adult, permitting myself one special item in addition to our household list.

It may have been the time I chose carrot-kale-spinach juice as my treat, or maybe it was when I picked probiotic tea with nutrient-packed chia seeds, that I realized I’ve become a bit of a health nut.

Yet it is possible to care for our health without going overboard. We can stay away from fad diets and try not to eat too much of one thing. More important, we can evaluate reasons for healthful living in light of our faith.

Several years ago, while writing about how chocolate is made and sold, I interviewed the owner of a health food store and her partner, who raved about his raw-food diet. Instead of chocolate he ate dried cacao, with goji berries for a hint of sweetness. He proclaimed his avoidance of cooked and processed foods “my 200-year plan.”

While it’s admirable to lower health risks such as cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, it’s delusional to think that our choices are the sole determiner of how long we will live. The reality is known all too well by those of us who have seen loved ones who took care of their bodies and spirits die before reaching old age.

In Aging, Henri J.M. Nouwen and Walter J. Gaffney warn against seeing “life as a property to be defended and not a gift to be shared.” If we narrow our perspective in that way, we grasp at control and the notion that if we only do the right things we will enjoy physical health and wealth, and no one and nothing will ever threaten us.

If instead we aim to make the most of the life we have, living healthfully can be in service of living fully and joyfully. Healthful living stewards one of the most precious resources we have, yet it does not need to be focused on a future reward.

Healthy eating and exercise — along with attending to emotional and spiritual enrichment and balance — can help us to be more energetic servants of God in the here-and-now. We may not always prevent illness, chronic or terminal. And we will have no guarantee of a long life.

From those who receive the gift of longevity, we have much to learn. In my work as a chaplain, and in my relationships with my family, I’ve come to cherish the blessings our elders give us. Two beloved elders especially enriched our families: my great-aunt Grace and my grandfather Christian. Both lived into their 90s, until each of their deaths last year. They were able to engage family and friends until quite close to the end.

Yet those final years were a mix. Both lost many abilities, even as their mental faculties remained fairly sharp. Grace outlived her husband for decades, and my grandfather cared for my grandmother as dementia advanced. Conversations with Grandma stopped, though that allowed Grandpa to share more stories of his youth. (I hadn’t heard about his time as a seagoing cowboy, taking cattle across the Atlantic after World War II to replenish Europe’s herds.)

Whether our time is long or short, our goal is to live faithfully in the years we have. That includes doing what we can to care for our health, while letting go of a sense of control, in order that we might also live abundantly.

Celeste Kennel-Shank is a minister and community gardener in Chicago.