What Is Wellness?
Most of us who would meet Joan would say that she is anything but well. At sixty-eight she has been in a wheelchair for twenty six years, the victim of aggressive multiple sclerosis. She lives by herself, her husband having divorced her many years ago; but she is closely attended by her three children and a myriad of friends from her church. She gets by with equipment that allows her to move around in the apartment, prepare simple meals, and do some basic housework. Still, she suffers frequently from disabling fatigue. In addition to requiring eight hours of sleep at night, she has to rest in bed for four hours during the day. The remainder of her time is spent reading and keeping up an e-mail correspondence with people all over the world, for whom she maintains an active prayer ministry. Four to five times a week, various friends stop by for a cup of tea. It’s amazing how many respond in the same way: “You know, I always plan to stop by and cheer up Joan, but the fact is, she invariably cheers me up. She doesn’t deny her problems but chooses not to dwell on them. Her love for God is absolutely contagious.”
Jim is seventy-two. An avid runner, he tries to log at least twenty miles a week. He keeps up a good pace and can do a seven minute mile if he pushes himself. He spends at least three hours at the gym four days a week, and the days he is not there, he is out taking long walks by himself. But that’s just the problem—he’s always by himself. Jim can greet the regulars at the gym by name but has no close friends. He is acutely aware that if he didn’t show up, no one would miss him. His ex-wife is happily remarried, and his children have had nothing to do with him since he left the family twenty-five years ago.
Mary, at eighty-eight, is moderately demented. She lives with her daughter, Beth, and is able to help out with the dishes and light housework early in the day but typically gets more confused and agitated during the evening hours. Beth has found that when confusion occurs, she can play some Christian music from thirty years ago. Mary has always loved these hymns, and she relaxes as she sings along with the old songs.
Now, allow me to ask the key question: Which one of these three is truly well? When asked, “How are you?” which one could honestly smile and say, “I’m well, thank you.” Would it be Joan with her MS; Jim, the seven-minute miler; or Mary with her dementia?
What is wellness, anyway? At first blush most of us would answer in terms of our physical health. Have you heard about the Turbaned Tornado? This is Fauja Singh, who completed the Toronto Marathon when he was one hundred years old. You may say, “Wow, he was certainly well.” I agree that you don’t run a marathon when you are sick. But is physical health all there is to wellness? If wellness requires us to complete a marathon at one hundred, most of us won’t make it. Thankfully, wellness is much more than physical health and freedom from distressing symptoms. Wellness involves the whole of our being, which includes six distinct areas: physical, mental, social, financial, spiritual, and emotional. These areas of wellness are not independent but are all interrelated. Each area contributes to the well-being of each of the others. At the same time, struggles in one area may detract from wellness in each of the others.
In dealing with aging patients, I have observed that having a sense of wellness sometimes results from placing sufficient value on at least one area of life where things are going well in order to trump areas where things could improve. Over the years I have heard many say, “If I can just stay healthy, that is all I want.” Yet I have seen many in great health who could not be called “well.” Jim, who at seventy-two is running twenty miles a week, is a case in point. His physical well-being is not enough to compensate for the other areas where he is lacking.
Furthermore, if we are going to choose one area in which to ground our sense of wellness, we want to make sure it will last throughout our lives. That may be the problem with both our physical and mental health—they may begin to run down. So it is with most of the other domains of wellness. Emotionally upbeat people may experience many losses that erode their optimism. Many experience their financial security disappearing when the economy takes a downturn. Those who are counting on family and friends may experience severe disappointments. But there is one area of wellness that need not fail—our relationship with God.
I will never forget dear Eddie, who, when I told her she had only a matter of weeks till her colon cancer would take her life, looked at me incredulous that I thought I was giving her bad news. Her response was, “Well, you don’t get to heaven by being healthy, do you?” Even facing death, Eddie felt well because she placed more value on spiritual realities than on physical. Maintaining spiritual wellness can be of great benefit in this life, and it is the only area of wellness that we will continue to enjoy throughout eternity. Paul wrote:
We do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16–18)
Wellness involves the whole of our being, which includes six distinct areas: physical, mental, social, financial, spiritual, and emotional.
Paul would have been one of those who could answer, “I’m well, thank you,” even as his outer nature wasted away.
Late in his life John wrote his third epistle. It was addressed to his beloved friend Gaius, and in it John said, “I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2). John equated good health not with the state of Gaius’s body but with the state of his soul. A healthy spirit can help compensate for difficulties faced in each of the other areas. But that must not be our only focus, for maintaining wellness in the other five areas contributes to our spiritual wellness. Keeping physically and mentally healthy allows us to get out and serve others while continuing to grow in our understanding of God. Social relationships are so often key to spiritual wellness. Learning to trust God for our finances and maintaining a positive outlook will similarly contribute to our spiritual health. The bottom line is that our top priority—spiritual wellness—is best nurtured in the context of staying well in as many of the other areas as possible.
Staying Well Requires Planning
Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”1 That applies to wellness. We need to carefully define our goals, choose the wisest strategies to accomplish them, and discipline ourselves to implement those strategies if we are going to maximize the chance that we can be well in as many spheres as possible.
Even with that, the overachievers among us will have to recognize that it is far-fetched to think that we will have true wellness in all six areas of life at the same time. God in his sovereignty may overrule and have reasons for us to go through seasons where we are not well. The difficulties we face may be the result of living in a world affected by sin, or they may be the natural consequences of bad choices we have made.
Let’s face it: most of us are not going to die while we are physically healthy or free from difficulties. Paul and Barnabas taught the new believers in Asia Minor “that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Paul himself experienced “many tribulations” including being stoned and left for dead, receiving the notorious thirty-nine lashes five times, and being shipwrecked three times while being left afloat at sea for a day and a night! Recall that he referred to these as “light momentary affliction.” Why? It is because such difficulties are “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Paul experienced wellness not through the absence of problems but through his abiding confidence that God was in control and that in eternity he would see God’s ultimate purpose.
Even while we realize that in some areas of our lives, God may overrule our best intentions—and we want him to accomplish his purposes for us—we should still set wellness as our goal.
- Motivational Quotes.com, www.motivatingquotes.com/goalsq.htm (accessed October 27, 2011).
This article is adapted from Wellness for the Glory of God: Living Well after 40 with Joy and Contentment in All of Life.
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