Maid in Manhattan, Wellness in America

In case you weren’t on a cross-country flight in the early 2000’s, here’s the plot of the movie Maid in Manhattan: J. Lo is a maid with movie star looks toiling at a Waldorf-Astoria type hotel who gets onto senatorial candidate Ralph Fiennes’ gold-plated radar despite her low socioeconomic status or, perhaps, because of it (Fiennes says with a surprised grin, “No woman ever speaks like that to me!”). The movie begins as a comedy of mistaken identity and resolves itself with J. Lo and her son being helicoptered out of poverty’s narrow choices into a wide-open life with Fiennes.

It’s a story of exceptional individuals, which is a good formula in Hollywood but not so much in health and wellness. It’s an uncontroversial statement to say that many of us feel out-of-balance right now. The world seems to be moving faster; we are less financially and politically secure; addicted to our devices; and trying to improvise childcare and eldercare (for instance).

One of the most common frameworks for dealing with this out-of-balance feeling seems to be to become an exceptionally health-oriented person. To deal with the stress of over-working, you could subscribe for green juice delivery to the office. Order a Peloton or download What bothers me is not any of these individual activities but rather how wellness is framed primarily as a question of individual resources and willpower. Like so much in America, it’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Well I am going to need a hell of a lot of green juice to feel better about rising income inequality.

The efficacy of extreme self-reliance is being tested by economic and social pressures. How do single moms find time to “rest and rejuvenate”? How do people with crappy insurance undertake preventative care? And how do people with dopamine receptors (all of us) simply stay off their phones?

This situation requires not just personal willpower but collective action. I want to live in a country where people are likely to be healthy and sane and kind. It’s perhaps because I have a disability, and I regularly need help from people or assistive technology, that I’ve already warmed to the idea that health is a communal act. Willpower would not allow me to type on a keyboard, for instance.

If we don’t acknowledge the larger forces contributing to our un-wellness, we will beat ourselves up for not developing healthier habits or feeling as serene as the next Instagram influencer. Organizing — political and social — should be part of our health toolbox. The more that we are pushed out of balance, the more difficult it will be to “center” ourselves with personal practices.

We need to pursue inner and outer flourishing. In case we needed any reminding after this week, Ralph Fiennes, the Republican senator, is not coming to rescue us anytime soon.

Originally published at on January 13, 2021.

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