Wellness: Reflections on the 2022 AhFest Theme by Foley Schuler

My groans pour out like water.
My worst fears have happened;
my nightmares have come to life.
Silence and peace have abandoned me,
and anguish camps in my heart.
–The Book of Job (Stephen Mitchell, trans.)

What is life but another terminal illness? The original one. Yes, that one–the one of
which we hope never to be cured. That’s the trouble with being born: No one gets out
alive–though some are working on it. “I still haven’t succeeded in doing anything against
death,” Nobel Prize-winning writer Elias Canetti would lament, without any particular
irony, in 1960, his 55th year. To my knowledge neither has anyone since. What we can
do, however, is to ease that transition between two great unknowns–that transition
commonly known as life–and to maintain and improve our condition so as to fully savor
the experience while it lasts, until one can perhaps say, with poet Wallace Stevens:
“The greatest poverty is not to live/ In a physical world.”
Today health and wellness form a trillion dollar industry–one of the biggest in the world.
The shelves of thrift stores sag with the weight of discarded self-help books, while
dusty, outdated exercise equipment populates basements across the land, like so many
extinct dinosaurs–the fossilized remains of our best intentions. Yet, the impulse
remains. What greater intoxicant is there, after all, than self-improvement? And how
many times have we heard someone say, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I
would have taken better care of myself!”–or perhaps even said it ourselves? Most often
linked to pianist and composer Eubie Blake, this famous formulation has also been
attributed, variously, to Mickey Mantle, Cary Grant and George Burns–amongst many
others–and for good reason. Nearly everyone who lives to a certain age feels that way
at one time or another.
In Zen, both sickness and health are considered distractions on the path to
enlightenment–each miring us with equal force in the world of dualities–though few of us
ever transcend that distinction. The presence of mind required just to register the fact
requires some modicum of wellness–the same prerequisite, it would seem, for the sort
of reflection that is the very heart of the humanities (Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as
“emotion recollected in tranquility” also comes to mind). The truth is, when we are
unwell, it colors our view of everything; When we regain relative wellness, it is as if
we’ve been given back our lives again.
Physical health is one thing–important, but just a part of the picture–but what does it
actually mean to be well? The ways in which well-being manifests itself in our lives, and
the factors involved, are as varied and multifaceted as life itself. A recent study on
wellness conducted at Stanford, for instance, identified at least 10 major domains of
well-being, including social connectedness, lifestyle behaviors, stress and resilience,
emotional health, physical health, meaning and purpose, sense of self, finances,
spirituality or religiosity, and exploration and creativity.
With the world still in the grip of a global pandemic–but also amid glimmerings of hope–
we find wellness on our minds more than ever these days, nearly to the point of
obsession. Even as that grip relaxes a bit, it would almost seem that when we’re not
thinking about it, we are trying our best, the rest of the time, not to think about it. This
year the Muskegon Area Arts and Humanities Festival encourages you to think about it–
what wellness means to you, as well as the many ways we might achieve this everelusive goal–this goal that is always also the journey–and to, above all, just be well.