It is clear that environment affects healthy habits. I’m in my hometown for a holiday visit with family. Funny thing is, there’s not much family left here so I’m not running from party to party with no time to spare. I’ve had time to notice how quiet it is in this little town. It reminds me of a snow day when there’s no traffic and a blanket of white absorbs the noise.
There’s a wonderful new restaurant in town. I eat there every time I’m here. Last night when I finished eating, the manager walked me to my car. It was about 7pm, but really dark outside. There were more bright stars visible in the sky than you can imagine. The whole scene struck me as ironic. In a town so small that I can see every star in the sky, the restaurant manager is courteous enough to make sure I get safely to my car…at 7pm.
This stands in sharp contrast to a recent experience in the neighborhood where I live. After a concert at a highly touted restaurant, in order to reach my car I had to walk past two men who had rolled out a mattress in the parking lot where they were openly smoking crack and talking to the car next to them. The car was empty, but the alarm had gone off causing the men to loudly admonish it. There was no security guard and certainly no restaurant volunteer to walk with me.
This is not the first time I’ve encountered a crack-encumbered man outside of an upscale restaurant in my city. One night on the way to my car, another man who was flying high hugged me after I told him I wasn’t going to give him money. He could just as easily have shot me.
I felt pretty sure a gold-toothed man I encountered at a gas station was going to hurt me whether I gave him money or not. I don’t go to that gas station any more, but I don’t think my instincts were wrong. Four people have been shot and killed near that intersection in the past year. And so it goes where I live. In the past month, a two-year-old and a 3-year-old were shot and killed while riding in cars.
You might dismiss this as a large inner city problem, but I don’t live in a large city. The population is under 200,000. You might dismiss this as my choice of neighborhoods, but I live 5 blocks from the governor’s mansion. In an even more affluent nearby neighborhood, two women were recently robbed at gunpoint in a grocery store parking lot. My daughter-in-law had just left that store moments before.
Today I’m left pondering the contrasts – a small town that is often called ultraconservative, redneck, closed-minded, uneducated, bigoted, and the most racist small town in America where a total stranger wants to make sure I’m safe on a short walk to my car vs a small city that is considered more sophisticated, diverse, educated, inclusive, and enlightened where it is commonplace to encounter danger and uncommon to encounter concern for my welfare.
If I had grown up in the community where I now live, would I believe that I would live long enough for healthy habits to matter? Would organic produce seem important when I’m rolling off the couch into the floor to crawl away from external walls because I hear the rapid-fire shots of an AR-15 and the screeching tires of the car out of which it’s being fired? Would I be more likely to seek comfort in a high carbohydrate, endorphin releasing meal?
I can answer one of those questions. The most recent drive-by shooting at my house was within the past year. Nothing seems more important than hitting the deck when you hear gunfire outside. Period. You’re not going to make sure to grab your phone so you can call the police. You’re sure as hell not going to make sure you grab a salad while you wait for your heart to stop pounding.
If there’s a way to import the attitude of community concern I experience in my insular hometown, sans bigotry, to the city where I currently live, it’s sorely needed. Self-care begins by giving our bodies good nutrition, adequate sleep, plenty of movement, and enough stillness, but the feeling that we are worthy of self-care begins when we feel valued. That feeling comes when our environment provides safety and responsiveness to our need for food, warmth, comfort, and touch.
It is ideal when that responsiveness comes from our parents and extended family in our first moments, but it can be healing even when it comes later. The violence and divisiveness in my community exposes a huge need for healing. Extending a hand may require courage. It could make us vulnerable. But if we don’t begin to summon some courage to reach out, we all become more vulnerable anyway.
As I move into the new year, it is with an acute awareness of the unhealthy environment in which I live. No matter what I do within my household, I am still affected by my neighborhood and the community at large. I must decide how I can best take care of myself while best contributing to the larger community. It is the ideal time for reassessment and reevaluation.
The extent to which I am willing to face my failures, own my weaknesses, understand my limitations, enforce my boundaries, and feel my shame will determine the extent to which I am effective in contributing to healing, health, peacefulness, and joy.
In 2017, I hope you will join me on a journey to create an environment for ourselves, our partners, our children, and our communities in which we can all become healthier as well as more whole, peaceful, and joyous. We may not solve the world’s problems, but when we show concern and kindness one walk to the car at a time, we will make a difference.
Happy New Year!