Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Living well: The mystery of our choices

Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Living well: The mystery of our choices
Rev. Ian Markham

By Rev. Ian Markham

It is worth remembering that America is a big country, with almost 332 million people living here. On most days, most people get through the day unscathed. We don’t crash the car; we don’t fall ill; and we don’t get shot.

Yet it is also true that most of us take significant risks with our longevity. Every year,
480,000 Americans die from smoking. Another 280,184 Americans die from obesity, 140,000 more die from excessive alcohol use and another 100,000 die because they just cannot get around to ten minutes a day of vigorous physical activity. COVID is still a significant threat, especially for the unvaccinated; in 2022, COVID took 267,000 American lives.

Having a gun or driving a car are also risky activities. In 2020, 45,222 people died from gun-related injuries, of which 24,292 were suicides. And in 2021, there were 42,915 road deaths – although, thanks to improvements in car safety, that is a relatively low 1.3 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

Some activities are extremely safe. Flying for one. The National Safety Council reports: “Major airlines (scheduled service) experienced no onboard fatalities and had a fatal accident rate of 0.0 per 100,000 flight hours in 2021.”

If you want to live a long time, then there are some things that one should do. Make sure your diet is healthy with no processed food, reduce red meat and eat lots of blueberries and vegetables. Limit your drinking to no more than two glasses of wine a night. Undertake daily exercise with at least 10 minutes being vigorous activity. Do not smoke. Join a church – interestingly, repeated studies have shown that the average regular church goer lives two years longer than their secular friend. And avoid guns and car journeys, but feel free to fly.

Now here is the weird thing. Most readers of the Alexandria Times will know this data. Yet we make countless decisions that are opposed to our rational self-interest. Instead of going for a bracing walk at 7 p.m., we rather pour ourselves our third glass of wine and watch two episodes of Ted Lasso. Instead of making ourselves a salad for lunch, we head out to McDonalds for a burger and fries.

So, why is this? Why do we find it so difficult to take the course of action that is best for us? St. Paul in a famous passage in the book of Romans muses on the conflict between the spirit and the flesh. Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15).

Paul was aware of a universal human dilemma: Our heads are aware of what we should do, but our subconscious and our deep physical desires are disinclined to do the right thing. From Paul to St. Augustine to Sigmund Freud, humanity became aware that much of our behavior is governed by forces beyond our conscious control.

All the evidence suggests that the only way we can get to a better place is to search for a culture of like-minded persons equally committed to getting to a better place. We need a group or a community that changes our subconscious predilections – a group committed to healthy living. It might be a cycling club, Alcoholics Anonymous, a cooking club, or sure – a church – that makes the difference.

So, as summer comes upon us, let us all find a community that may enable us to have long and healthy lives.

The writer is dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary.