I believe in the adage, ‘We get the government we deserve.’ I do not think it applies to everyone in the world; people living under tyrannical dictators have little choice but to endure until seeds of change can sprout, but in theUnited States, our system gives us enough opportunity to participate that the adage applies. Yet as I rode through this country I could not help but notice how many citizens do not feel that way. Government feels foreign; the world seems too complicated for any one individual to affect. We say we want less government yet virtually all of us have a special interest or compelling need that we want the government to address. We want the government to be efficient as business but we forget that if the tasks of government were profitable, businesses would do them. Our government’s job is to address all the things that we as a society want done, efficient or not. We feel out of control, we grasp for meaning. But unlike other quandaries put forth in this book, getting the government we deserve is not a chicken and egg question, it starts with citizens getting involved and demanding it. It begins with each of us, individually, improving ourselves, improving our families, improving our communities, improving our nation.
A dissonance has developed between our independent character and our burgeoning culture of entitlement. The old fashioned notion that the government intervenes in emergencies but otherwise citizens shoulder on their own has been replaced by the philosophy that everyone has their hand in the till and, darn it, I want my share. In the same vein that we cannot continue to borrow money for everything we want forever without one day the bill coming due, we cannot all receive benefits without paying for them.
From my perspective what we are entitled to as citizens of this country is not a benefit or a handout or a tax break. What we are entitled to is a more supreme privilege; to be active participants in our government. Billions of people around the world are denied this opportunity, yet so many of us squander it here. At the very least this privilege means that we vote, and vote intelligently. It means we understand how our government works and that we feel empowered by our ability to be part of the democratic process. Being part of the process does not insure that our point of view will prevail, but it ensures our voice will be heard and our arguments will be respected.
The path to leaner, more responsive government will not occur through cutting taxes or lopping programs if everyone is intent on extracting her personal share. Only higher debt and greater discord will result from that. The path to leaner, more responsive government will only occur when individuals realize that it is a privilege to contribute to the common pool. When people prefer to stand on their own two feet rather than lean against someone else with their hands out. Just as a consumer-based economy will not find balance, so to a consumer-based government will never achieve equilibrium. The objective of government is not to dole out benefits to individuals. The objective of government is to manage the system of rules, shared property, and common interests we develop to shape our society. When those rules warrant actions to help individuals in need, the elderly, children, disaster victims, whomever, we bestow benefits to certain individuals, but the benefits are the expression of our collective interest, not the reason for government.
The most distressing and ubiquitous condition I observed as I travelled this country was the epidemic of obesity. I believe there is a link between the dissonance we have with our government and the dissonance we are creating within our own bodies. Our government is bloated, alien and unresponsive, and so are we.
Perhaps I could have observed analogies of related traits; drinking or smoking, promiscuity or depression. But no other disability is growing so quickly or, to be frank, so visibly, as obesity. Fat people are everywhere in America. I also have a personal relationship with the obesity epidemic because I was a fat child. I suffered the awkwardness of not being able to keep up with others, of being unattractive and uncomfortable in my too ample skin. On the flip side, as an average sized adult I decided that I wanted to lose the cushion around my middle and in the past three years I have lost twenty pounds through exercise, improved diet and healthier habits. Neither of these experiences makes me a candidate for a makeover reality show. Still, what I gained in the process was more than looser fitting jeans. I gained discipline, confidence, and the understanding that although I cannot control every aspect of my life, I have more control than I previously understood.
These days I weigh 160 pounds or so. I can’t imagine getting down to 150, but then again, when I weighed over 180, 160 seemed like a fantasy. I still eat everything I did before; just less of it. I accept hunger as a feeling that occurs during my day, like being drowsy or energetic or thirsty or full. When I am hungry I eat, but not always right away. Sometimes I let hunger linger; it does not always have to be satiated on demand. When I feel hunger I become more aware of my body, I observe the hollow in my stomach, I contract my abdomen, reveling in the taut middle that used to be spongy. I embrace hunger; I learn from it, and eventually I satisfy it, both with nourishing food and my own penchant for sweets. I am not about to starve, or even compromise my productivity by allowing a hunger craving to linger. Hunger is a messenger telling my body it will need food; it is not a dictator with immediate needs.
Having been fat and now thin; being very conscious of what I eat and how I exercise makes obesity an issue I can relate to at a personal level. I have experienced alcohol and cigarettes and inhaled a few illegal drugs, but they never registered as more than incidental experiences in my psyche. My addictive streak runs through food; what I just ate and what I will soon eat are never far from my mind. My attention to food, and its corollary of exercise, is ever present. I have learned to ward off the immediate gratification of that brownie with the disciplined understanding that the brownie does not serve my long tern interests well. I still eat brownies, and I enjoy them; actually I enjoy them more than I did before because now a brownie it is a treat in the fullest sense of that word. I have learned to eat enough food to sustain my body and to understand that like so many other aspects of life, enough is actually better than more.
As a nation, we have not grown fat and happy, we have grown fat and unhappy, and neither characteristic is attractive. Obesity is the physical manifestation of being disconnected, from ourselves, from our families, from our community, from our national identity, and from our country. This is logical since obese people create an internal schism between their bodies and their selves; many are so big they cannot actually ‘feel’ their physical extents, others simply refuse to recognize that giant mass in the mirror, that bulk that causes so much lethargy and strain, as an integral part of their being. We only have one body; it is the vessel God gave us to carry our spirit. Yet millions of us are abusing our bodies and then pointing beyond ourselves to assign blame for our discomfort.
The alarming disregard for our physical bodies that I witnessed in my travels filters through every topic I mused upon during my journey. There are the obvious connections. Our national weight problem is tied to the foods we eat, how we manufacture them, how we price them, and how we deliver them; to our sedentary lifestyles dependent on driving, and to the astronomical healthcare costs associated with so many obese people. Then there are the less obvious relationships. As we grow obese we have less control over own bodies and compensate by seeking greater control over others; obesity breeds intolerance. When we are fat we have less energy to do physical work, and some studies indicate obesity adversely affects intelligence as well. Obese people suffer social rejection; make less money than healthier people and live shorter lives. Eventually I came to understand obesity not as a singular problem but as a syndrome that drains us of vitality and wellbeing. It obstructs our independence.
I believe our inherent drive to be independent is a positive force among Americans. Being independent means that we can do many things for ourselves and have choices about how and when we interact with others. It means we affect the shape of our own lives, have some control over the events around us and perhaps even guide those events. Sure, stuff happens that we cannot control; hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, car accidents, disease, downsizing, and death. Even the most prepared of us experience unexpected events. But the reality is, accidents happen less to people who drive defensively, disease occurs less in people who nurture their bodies and spirits, downsizing is less catastrophic for a person with good education and flexible skills, and death occurs later to those who lead a healthy life. Mother Nature’s treachery is so far beyond our control all we can do is respect it, which is appropriate because no matter how advanced we may think we are, we are still just another species on this amazing planet.
The key to being truly independent is not to control everything, but to control enough. To have a hand on the tiller of our destiny so that maneuvering the currents and storms is an adventure more often than it is a tragedy.
Independence cannot be achieved without personal responsibility. Our society offers more opportunity for independence than any on earth. Our system of government ensures it, our open markets, free education, and abundant resources foster it. True, two hundred years ago the independence afforded by an emerging nation was greater than it is today, but that was the past. Measured in the present, our country still offers more independence than any other, which is why despite our problems, immigrants clamor to come here.
It is disheartening to see so many Americans abdicate our independence by allowing obesity and its attendant challenges to infiltrate our bodies. It is even worse to see how we gain weight and lose esteem, gain weight and lose confidence, gain weight and lose mobility until we metastasize from independent spirits to victims who have abdicated control of our most personal possession, our own body. Responsible, independent people suffer setbacks, make poor judgments, and have bad luck, but that does not make them victims. Victims think they have no choice; that everything is beyond their control. And they are wrong. No one in this country has unfettered choice, but all of us have some choice. Every day every one of us decides whether to watch TV or take a walk, whether to eat a cruller or a banana, whether to complain about a problem or act on it, whether to extend an empty hand expecting someone else to fill it or extend a hand nourished by our national resources to lift up someone less fortunate, whether to seek alms from the common pool or contribute to it.