Fellow Toastmasters, my name is Bob and I am not a motivational speaker. I am not going to pat you on the back and tell you what wonderful people you are, or encourage you to seize the day. Unlike many motivational speakers, I’m not going to recommend that you “step outside your comfort zone” or think outside the proverbial box – and then believe that I’ve actually accomplished something. My style is closer to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Using several examples, a lot of data and numerous dry observations, I will speak dispassionately about the world as I see it, and then impress upon you that we, collectively, are in a heap of trouble. The end result however should be the same – a call to action and (I hope) a positive change in your lives.
Some recent news stories have stated that the current generation of kids and teenagers is experiencing record levels of obesity. Some are even developing Type II diabetes and developing coronary disease. The reports go on to say that this current generation of children may be the first in history to have a life expectancy lower than their parents.
This sounds shocking, and perhaps even tragic. However, when I heard this, I did not shed any tears for these kids. I thought to myself “This is excellent – I’m actually glad to hear that this is happening!”. Now, you’re probably thinking to yourselves “Bob – how can you say this? You’re usually such a nice guy – logical and reasonable – how can you be so heartless?”
Naturally, I don’t wish death or even hardship upon these people. Therefore, I should qualify my statement by saying that I’m not looking at the misfortunes of a few individuals; I’m looking instead at the big picture, and what this means to all of us.
My high school English teacher told our class that in order to write an interesting and compelling story, there must be some conflict. The three classic conflicts in literature are: Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Nature. The conflict I see arising today is a variation of Man vs. Nature. However instead of an unstoppable juggernaut, we are facing an adversary whom I believe is completely neutral. On the surface, this doesn’t appear to be the stuff of great literature or even a compelling story – what sort of battle can this be if Nature doesn’t care?
In nature, well-functioning ecosystems have an inherent equilibrium. When there is a change in the environment, then it affects the ecosystem and disrupts its equilibrium; if the change persists, then eventually a new equilibrium will be established. The same thing also happens on a much smaller scale – we have our own personal equilibrium, as dictated by our habits and lifestyle choices. When we change our behaviour and actions, then we also establish a new equilibrium. This may be manifested by a change in our weight, our blood pressure, cholesterol level, or other indicators. It’s a simple cause and effect relationship – so why would there be any conflict or tragedy?
The answer lies in our attitudes. During the past couple of generations, I have noticed a shift in attitudes among many people in North America. In our increasingly litigious society, there is a growing tendency among people to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, and to blame everyone else for their misfortune.
A few years ago, an elderly lady bought a cup of steaming hot coffee from McDonalds. She got into her car, and instead of placing it in the cup holder, she wedged the coffee cup between her legs, and predictably, suffered burns when the coffee spilled. Although there was a warning on the coffee cup, she nevertheless decided to sue McDonald’s.
In April 2007 a gunman opened fire at Virginia Tech, killing 32 people. In a subsequent newspaper article, he blamed everyone but himself. He said that we could have prevented this, and now we have blood on our hands.
Finally, in the most sickening example, in Texas a couple of years ago, a man injured his infant daughter by placing her in a microwave oven. His wife actually came to his defence and said that it was the devil’s fault, because her husband was planning to become a preacher, and Satan saw that as a threat.
We seem to excel at rationalizing our poor behaviour. We can come up with all kinds of excuses in order to fool ourselves and even our family and friends. We try to explain away our bad habits, yet we don’t take any corrective action. In the end though, Nature doesn’t care. Actions speak louder than words – it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters only what you do.
For example, if you eat fast food every day, you will gain weight. If you eat it month after month and year after year, you will develop health problems that will shorten your life. This is your body’s new equilibrium. You can try to rationalize your weight gain all you like, but your arguments will not change anything. Nature doesn’t care if your parents divorced while you were a child; Nature doesn’t care if you were bullied at school and are now finding your inner peace and tranquility in comfort food.
If you play video games every day or watch movies every night on your HDTV, and if you don’t balance that inactivity with a sufficient exercise regimen, you’ll also gain weight and develop health problems. If you inhale carcinogens day after day, not only will your life expectancy be decreased, but your final years will be decidedly unpleasant as you battle lung cancer. If you abuse drugs – even prescription drugs – then you might also drop dead at 39, just like Anna Nicole Smith. Nature… doesn’t… care.
If you work hard, set high standards for yourself and take care of your health, then life will be kind to you. However, if you decide to take the path of least resistance and have little or no self-discipline, then you simply won’t enjoy the same quality of life as others. You choose your path, and Nature will simply establish the corresponding equilibrium. It’s such a simple cause and effect relationship, yet we as a society continue to delude ourselves.
When I hear that the current generation of children is facing a record obesity rate, and may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, I am not outraged at all – this was not only expected, but in my opinion, overdue. I see this as a wake-up call – not just for these kids, but for all of us. In my view, the universe is unfolding exactly as it should, and it’s now time that we realize that we are the authors of our own misfortune. I don’t want these young people to die; I just want them and the rest of our society to wake up and start taking responsibility for their lifestyle choices!
I think the next few years will be quite interesting, as we sit on the sidelines and watch the battle of the century unfold. In our 21st century version of the classic literary conflict, Man, the great rationalizer, faces Nature, the great equalizer.
So the next time you’re ordering a large poutine with extra bacon bits, you can tell yourself “It’s OK, I’ll start my diet tomorrow” or “I’ve been working at the computer all day – I deserve this”. Tell yourself whatever makes you feel better, because in the end, your words won’t make a bit of difference. Nature… doesn’t… care.