Re-wilding our language
“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”
Every now and then a word creeps into our language and begins to replicate like a fungus, invading every available corner of our consciousness. The word takes on a life of its own and begins to infect our conversations and weaken our powers. One such word is wellness.
The word itself can be traced back to the 1950’s. In the beginning, it was proposed as a push-back against Western medicine and its mechanical approach to the human body. Critics declared that “health is more than the absence of disease” and advanced a new concept that was supposed to be more complete and holistic. Health just wasn’t good enough anymore.
But as popular as it has become, wellness is a weak concept with no significant history. It can be traced back a few decades at most and even at that, it doesn’t have much substance to draw on. No wonder people are confused: Is it now possible to be well but not healthy? Or healthy but not well? Why muddy the waters with conflicting concepts? What exactly is wrong with the word health anyway?
In fact, health has great merit and substance. Everyone understands what it means: doctors, veterinarians, therapists, trainers and lay people alike. And health has a immense, colorful history, full of drama, struggle and sacrifice. From ancient shamans to Hippocrates and Galen to Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur, William Harvey and Jonas Salk, the history of health and medicine reads like one of the greatest stories ever told.
The problem with the wellness meme is that it’s become weak, pale, thin and flabby. It has no claws, no teeth, no bone and no blood. It’s sterile, corporate and lifeless. Even worse, wellness has now been watered down and repackaged into a marketing pitch, a glossy layer that’s added onto a vast range of products and services. No one really knows what wellness is, but it has a certain look and feel that can be readily hawked to consumers. Slender, smiling, Photoshopped models may look well, but they sure aren’t real.
And so the time has come to trash the word wellness and replace it with the word wildness. The beauty of wildness is that it has a deep and powerful history that puts us back into community with all the other creatures of the earth. It’s a powerful antidote to the domestication that pulls so many of us into the pit of sedentary living and ill-health.
Wellness is bland, indoor language, but as we all know, people are spending too much time indoors as it is. In contrast, wildness is a vibrant outdoor word, one that conjures up associations with seasons, textures, wind, water, animals and vistas. The word resonates with our innate sense of biophilia, our inborn desire to associate with living things.
We can feel our wildness at a deeply cellular level; it’s our original, Paleolithic nature. In contrast, wellness feels like nothing at all. It doesn’t inspire our spirit, our passions or our connection with the living world. When was the last time you saw a powerful, healthy animal in a natural outdoor setting and exclaimed “Wow, that animal looks really well”?
Wildness has heart and spirit, guts and gonads. It’s vibrantly alive and unpredictable; when pushed, it might well push back. It’s got Africa in it; it connects deeply into human and animal history, into the very spirit of the biosphere. Wildness is exciting, risky, dangerous, exuberant and in turn, highly erotic. In contrast, wellness is dull and sexually tepid. Do you really want to sleep with someone who is merely well, or would you rather sleep with someone whose heart and body is on fire, surging with animal spirits and ready to pounce?
Wellness is a low bar that demands little in the way of commitment or risk. In contrast, wildness is an aspiration to merge with the totality of the biosphere and the spirit of every animal that has ever lived. Wellness is simply a state of being OK, but wildness is the feeling of being outrageously alive. It’s what we feel in the midst of a really challenging outdoor workout, when all our juices are flowing. It’s what we feel when our hearts are pounding, our blood is surging, our muscles are quivering –when we want to quit, but we really want more. This is the feeling that keeps us coming back, over and over again.
And it’s not just about the experience of physical power in movement and exercise; when the action is over, the wild animal relaxes completely, into a deep state of quiet, ease, healing and rejuvenation. This wild cycle of activity and rest is millions of years old and extremely effective. In other words, wildness works.
So I say to hell with well. I want to be a vital, powerful, loving and exuberant force of nature, a good animal. The time has come to expunge the word wellness from our conversations about the body. This means re-thinking every program, every practice and every curriculum that’s based on this flabby, pathetic word. Most importantly, it’s time to eliminate the phrase health and wellness from our dialogue. At best, it’s redundant; at worst, it’s nonsensical. Instead, we ought to replace it with health and wildness. This phrase will bring some life back into our practices and our programs. It will remind us of our animal nature and the original source of our health. Like it or not, our health comes from our wildness. We can live without wellness, but once we give up on wildness, it’s the beginning of the end.