How far should we go in encouraging our friends and loved ones, and society in general for that matter, to live a healthier lifestyle? In my search for the appropriate answer, I acquired some useful insight this morning while reading the news.
The New York Times ran a front page article about President-Elect Obama's attempt to quit smoking. Obama may be the most admired person in America, perhaps the world. Yet, despite his regular exercise and despite nicotine gum and patches, he admits
"there are still times when I fall off the wagon."
While reading this it occurred to me that giving up unhealthy habits may be more difficult than winning a national election for president. Do those of us who have made significant progress in improving our own lifestyles, seriously underestimate the difficulty that others have in giving up life threatening bad habits? How hard should we try to convince others to change? Are we doing the right thing to provide good information about diet, exercise, stress reduction, etc. to others? With good intentions, do we incur the risk of crossing the boundary into inappropriate intrusions into another's right to choose?
In his column this morning, the Conservative William Kristol
said, "Those of us who dislike finger-wagging nanny-state-nagging liberalism relish the prospect of President Barack Obama sneaking a cigarette on the second floor of the White House…."
Kristol has a point about "nanny nagging," but I immediately thought back to April 26, 1966. On that dreadful day I was called out of my graduate school class to take a phone call. My uncle was calling to tell me that my father had died of a heart attack that morning. The cardiac event that finally took my father's life was his fourth.
The previous summer my mother and father visited me in Durham, NC where I was taking my classes at Duke University Medical Center towards a graduate degree in Hospital Administration. During my first year, I had gotten to know Walter Kempner, a physician who started a therapeutic program for cardiac patients that was based upon a rice centered diet. Kempner had considerable success at reversing cardiac disease with his diet regimen. During my father's visit I encouraged him to take some time off from work, come live with us and attend the Kempner program. He gave my suggestion serious consideration, but decided against it.
I am still haunted by the possibility that if I had only tried harder, had more convincing arguments or been stronger in my persuasion; my father may have lived a few more decades. He was only 53 when he died. Who is correct in this situation, the Libertarian or the "Nagging Nanny?" Was my father free to make his own decisions and was I right in stopping after gentle persuasion? Or, should I have tried harder to convince him to do everything within his power to save his life? Should I have been a tiger rather than a lamb?
Ruth Heidrick survived metastasized breast cancer at age 48 and lived to be a 72 year old world class Triathlete. She credits her success to a plant based diet, a raw foods diet, to be exact. In her book Senior Fitness, she describes how she has taken on the role of a persistent navigator to those who need to find the path to wellness through a healthy diet. She is an aggressive promoter of a healthy diet. According to her book, she'll even promote her cause to overweight strangers sitting next to her on airplanes.
The navigator role is appealing, but it clearly brings with it some challenges. Many people resent being reminded of their unhealthy habits. While some are grateful, others are put off, even angry. Friends can be lost and relationships strained if the navigator is too assertive. Should we take on the risks to achieve the greater good; perhaps even one life saved or chronic disease prevented or reversed?
I am clearly headed in the direction of letting it all hang out, i.e. being an unabashed advocate of a healthy diet and lifestyle. Sometimes I pause and consider the downsides and the risks. But, then again there was April 26, 1966 and the end of my father's life.