The (Hidden) Gift of Wellness

The (Hidden) Gift of Wellness

In a new book, a Creighton professor chronicles the rise of chronic illness in the U.S., and how our fast-paced, frenzied lifestyle may be contributing to our ill health. The solution, he says, lies within each of us.

By Eugene Curtin

When Tom Lenz, PharmD, published his new book last December, the COVID-19 virus and its accompanying stress was a crisis only beginning to emerge. He could not then have anticipated how well the pandemic, with its social distancing mandates and rapid spread through closely packed, frantically busy populations would reflect the problems of modernity that he believes spawn chronic illness.

Lenz, a professor of pharmacy in the Creighton University Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and director of Creighton’s Center for Health Promotion and Well-Being, has authored Chronically American: Our Evolution Towards Chronic Illness and Our Radical Way Forward.

In it, Lenz casts a critical eye over our frantic modern world, with its constant pressure to scale ever loftier heights. This pursuit of the external, he says, dominates and forces into the background the world of the inner self, whose health-inducing power remains discoverable through prayer, contemplation and meditation.

This understanding, he says, is directly applicable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The word ‘uncertainty’ has been greatly used during the past three months as a way to describe the current situation,” he says. “Feelings of uncertainty, and the messaging that we are getting from daily news reports, are leading many to experience anxiety, stress and fatigue.

“Many who had been able to maintain a level of resiliency four months ago, are now finding themselves struggling to cope with daily life. But resiliency comes from contemplative practices and allows us to maintain mental and emotional health during all types of difficulty — pandemic included.”

The sweep of Lenz’s book is long. He takes us from 3500 B.C., when accepted anthropology places the world’s population at about 14 million, through to our current day with 7.7 billion global inhabitants, representing a barely comprehensible population increase of 50,000%.

That 5,500-year span, Lenz writes, has seen western culture advance from rudimentary agriculture, the discovery of bronze and the creation of writing, the establishment of the kingdom of Egypt, classical Greece, the rise and fall of Rome and the triumph of Christianity. We have traversed early-Middle-Ages tribalism, medieval witch burning, the Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment and, perhaps most traumatically, the Industrial Revolution.

It has been a fascinating journey, and one Lenz might celebrate more than he does if various agents of modern frenzy hadn’t crashed the party. Everything is processed, packaged and fast, Lenz observes, including the pace of work where modernity’s latest good idea, the Digital Revolution, has done nothing to shorten work weeks or ease deadline stress.

Whatever the causes may be, the state of health in the United States is worrisome.

According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, six in 10 U.S. adults suffer from a chronic disease, and four in 10 have two or more. Chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes are the leading causes of death and disability and drive the nation’s $3.5 trillion in annual health care costs.

“I have spent the last 31 years seeking out what wellness means,” Lenz says during an interview at his office in the Old Gym, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. “What I have concluded is that it was there all along, hiding in plain sight: It is given as a gift from our very beginning.

“The challenge that we all have, in America — or the West, to be fair — is that we don’t slow down enough to realize it; we don’t have any stillness in order to appreciate that it’s actually there. We keep going through our day in some sort of frantic way trying to find it, and where we look is ‘out here.’ It’s always the outer.

“In fact, wellness is in the inner.”

Lenz is certainly his own best advertisement. Tall, lean and cheerful, ready with a smile and a laugh, this director of Creighton’s integrative health and wellness program personifies the health he promotes.

A central assertion of his book is that “chronicity,” a medical term used to describe the existence of persistent disease, can, and should, also be used to describe the persistence — and acceleration — of social conditions in the West that increase stress, a major contributor to the bad habits that lead to poor eating and poor health. The dominant role assumed by science since Enlightenment reason became society’s lodestar has spawned a new faith that there’s a pill for everything. And that, says this doctor of pharmacy, just isn’t true.

The key, Lenz says — much underestimated in our science-based culture — is tranquility.

A story:

Lenz meets regularly with employees enrolled in Creighton University’s wellness program, individuals typically battling obesity and high blood pressure and flirting with diabetes.

Lenz: “I was sitting with this gentleman who I had known for about a year, and he says, ‘I’ve got it figured out. I know what’s wrong. I know what the root cause of my issues is.’ Of course, I really wanted to hear.

“And he said, ‘I’m lonely.’

“I didn’t have an answer for ‘I’m lonely.’ There’s no drug for ‘I’m lonely,’ there’s no exercise program for ‘I’m lonely.’ At that moment I realized — and I knew it before but not that poignantly — that there’s more to all of this wellness stuff than just saying, ‘You need to take this medicine’ or ‘You need to eat right and exercise’ or whatever we are doing related to this biomedical reductionism that we’ve all been trained into.

“We have this notion of (acting on) what makes sense purely from a science standpoint, through math and reasoning,” he says. “This is how we’ve got into a way of living, here in the U.S., that’s fast-paced and achievement oriented and the source of chronic stress. We could probably make some good headway in chronic illness if we just stopped doing what we’re doing.”

In sum, Lenz says people would benefit if they ceased “tinkering’ with the externals of their lives and instead walked a path of internal transformation.

“Here’s the take-home point of the book, what I believe anyway,” he says: “There is a lot of tinkering available to us, but what we really need is transformation. Contemplation leads to transformation; contemplation lets you understand that the world isn’t as dualistic as we make it out to be.

“It’s not Democrat or Republican, it’s not black or white, it’s not male or female, it’s not yes or no, it’s not true or false, it’s not this or that. It’s all part of the same whole. When you understand that it’s all necessary — that’s transformation.

“Then you look at each person differently and relationships get better — you’re able to handle the stress that you have at work, at home or wherever.”

Well, yes, but …

Barbara Dilly, PhD, enjoys a broad view of the Omaha cityscape from her office in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences. A specialist in cultural anthropology, sustainability studies, environment and women and gender studies, she takes a similarly broad view of the relationship between spirituality and physical health.

“His argument is totally sound in what he sees as wrong, but he only sees the half of it — the personal level, what we can do,” she says. “I’ve known lots of people who have totally transformed themselves but didn’t make one dent in the way problems exist. They made a dent in themselves but it didn’t change the health care system, and it didn’t change the world they lived in.”

A story: Dilly was chatting with her father about the youngsters attending their church.

Dilly: “He said, ‘I don’t know what’s happened to this generation. These young people are all big people, they’re all heavy.’

“But I told him I can see how it happens. They get up early. They take their kids someplace, they stop on their way for coffee and a donut, they can’t get breakfast, they pick up a snack for lunch, they’re not cooking, they get home and it’s late and they’re tired so they order in a pizza and pretty soon they’re overweight and they’ve got problems with blood pressure and diabetes.

“I can see how this happens, I told him. It’s not that they’re just sitting around eating too much. They don’t take time to cook vegetables, or even meats that aren’t fried on a grill. It’s very hard.”

This, of course, is the frantic modern world against which Lenz inveighs. But Dilly, even as she acknowledges the value of a personal, internal transformation, looks more to structural societal reform as a roadway to better health.

The world, after all, is so big, and we are so small.

“We don’t need any more gentle admonitions, we need something much stronger, some data that says too many people are costing our health care system too much money because we’ve got a bad system for food and nutrition,” she says. “We should start with that.

“The arguments right now are about who pays for health care and who gets to make money off of it. That is a wrong argument. It’s what kind of health care we are getting, and why are we all so sick. Sure, we all need a personal transformation and to make good choices, but it’s hard, really hard.

“I would like to see people say, ‘Well, I will not accept all of this responsibility for me and my family. I want my country to take responsibility for some of this.’ That would be a personal transformation if you ask me — somebody who says, ‘I’m going to vote for somebody in the next election who says we have too many people in poverty and hunger and poor nutrition and you can’t take them all and sit them down and have them do yoga.’ It would help, no doubt, but it’s not going to help solve the problem.”

O.K., but on the other hand …

It’s hard to imagine a better example of tranquility than the Rev. Larry Gillick, SJ, who lost his sight after a childhood accident, a deprivation he counts, with impressive equanimity, as a blessing. Sitting in an office in the Old Rectory, a building that reaches deep into the Jesuit past in Omaha, he worries less about the impact of current culture on health and more about the frailties of simple human nature. Dissatisfaction plagues the spirit, he says, which leads to anxiety and frustration, which can certainly impact health negatively.

“That pressure can make us not take care of our spirit or our bodies,” he says. “It’s very hard to be grateful for our bodies and to take care of it as a precious gift, if my interior is so angry at the self that I take it out on the body. That is where I think sickness comes from. We are not grateful for this instrument. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, would say, ‘Preserve the instrument. Be grateful for it. It’s a blessed thing.’”

The answer, Fr, Gillick says, lies in gratitude, and in the acceptance of what he calls “enoughness.”

“I find most people very disappointed in themselves,” he says. “The number one thing I hear from young people is anxiety. They don’t like personal poverty; they don’t like the limitations of our bodies, minds, imagination, memory, spirit. They want some kind of normalcy, but normalcy that’s outside any limitations or frailties.”

Together with Lenz, Fr. Gillick identifies the quest for achievement, and its accompanying pressure, as a prime source of dissatisfaction. He summons the Latin roots of “satis” and “faction,” which in combination mean “to do enough,” in order to explain that people often don’t feel they have done, or achieved, enough

“I am good insofar as I can do things well,” he says the culture tells us. “In our culture, if you don’t take first place you’re a loser. There’s only one winner. World Series, Super Bowls, elections, everything’s measurable. There is very, very little in our culture that allows us to say, ‘Yes, I’m good at that.’ People can compliment us, and we’re afraid of it, because our egos and our culture demand that we be even more.”

The answer to all this restlessness, Fr. Gillick believes, is gratitude, a willingness to accept that we have — and are — enough; that it’s permissible to seek perfection, or “completeness,” which he sees as an alternative name for God, without really expecting to achieve it.

“We have such a longing in life for ‘completion,’ he says. “I call it ‘God.’ We long for God. We don’t like to call it ‘God’ all the time, but we long for completion, we long for the perfect, we long for the whole. Everybody does.

“You tell me there is no God. I will find out eventually what you long for, and I’ll call that God. You want total artistic perfection? What is wholeness for you? Is it beauty? Why do you want to be so beautiful? Be grateful for your perfect imperfection. That is what Jesus did by becoming human. ‘I embrace you, humanity, and I would like you to do the same.’”

As I was saying …

Lenz finds it interesting that Dilly looks outward to society, to the nation and even to the government for effective structural change, while Fr. Gillick looks inward, to the problem of human restlessness and discontent, frustrations that can lead to apathy about maintaining the remarkable gift that is the human body.

And, in fairness, he says, both points are valid.

“This is one of the reasons I wanted to write this book, because there is that difference,” he says. “There’s a struggle of internal versus external, structural versus personal. You can’t let go of the outer universe. The internal and external have to complement each other. We have to have conversations about getting power differentials more in line, changing policy, changing structure — that’s all part of it, too.”

But, he says, a proper and adequate life “structure” clearly is no panacea, as evidenced by students who come to Creighton from prosperous families but struggle nonetheless.

“High-achieving students who are for the most part from ‘enough money’ families, still struggle,” he says. “This is tied to this notion that I have to perform, there is something expected of me, and I feel like I’m not good enough.”

The good news, Lenz insists, is that there’s a better path, one he hopes his book will illuminate.

“We have an ace in the hole,” he says. “We were all born with complete wholeness. We were all born with complete wellness. Everything that is needed for the most complete, whole version of ourselves is already there as a gift and it doesn’t need to be earned or achieved.

“It may be the best strategy for mental and emotional health during times of stress and uncertainty, such as going to college or living through a pandemic.

“That’s our ace in the hole. It’s there, and it’s not going anywhere because it’s a gift from God and we just need more moments of stillness to realize it and find how that interacts with our world and our lives.

“This is why there’s hope, and unending hope.”