The Matrix series, yes the WHOLE series, is probably my favorite trilogy but I never understood one of the Oracle’s key lines until I began thinking about my own health and surviving the workplace. For those of you who don’t know, the Oracle is an Obi-Wan-like character who helps the protagonist, Neo, understand how to save the remaining humans on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

Turning to Neo, she says, “You didn’t come here to make a choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it.” Take a look at roughly the 2-minute mark of the following Youtube video:

I thought of this line when I read the following quotation from a hot-off-the-presses academic article that’s sweeping the news wires today:

“I am 45. I have always made sure my daughters go to the doctor but didn’t make time to get a doctor for myself. I’ve been too busy working and providing for my family. I wasn’t feeling well for a couple of months and finally let my daughter take me to the emergency room. They prescribed medication for hypertension, diabetes, and cholesterol but didn’t get me an appointment to follow up with a doctor. Mrs. Byrd did. She got me my own doctor within a week. I feel that I was treated well and will work with the doctor and do what it takes to get my blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol under control. I want to be there for my children for a very long time.” (Victor et al., 2010, eFigure 3. Role Model Story)

No, I’m not the guy who said all that but I could have been. Despite the fact that I’m 40, white, and don’t hit a barber shop in Dallas County, Texas every 3-4 weeks, I could well have had much in common with the man whose story became one of 84 such “model stories.”

A barber cutting hair: potential health intervention? (Image: Wikimedia)

Trained by researchers as part of an experiment, barbers told these stories to black men as the barbers gave them not only a haircut but checked their blood pressure and other vitals (Victor et al., 2010). As the men returned to the shops every couple of weeks, the barbers monitored them, encouraged them to see their doctors (and even paired them up with doctors if they didn’t know whom to turn to), and continued to tell them stories about successful interventions.

Guess what happened?

Yep, these men got the help they needed and their blood pressure came down. In fact, even men who received only pamphlets rather than story-telling and more direct barber-intervention (though the men still received blood pressure testing and monitoring when they went for their haircuts), saw improvement.

So, what worked? Was it the regularity of the intervention? Was it the fact that the barbers literally held their hands in some cases? Was it the haircut?

I began this post by noting that I am probably more like than unlike the experiment’s participants. I have often buried myself in my work, cited family sacrifices as a plausible waiver of all rights to health, and comforted myself (sometimes semi-consciously) that if anything really went wrong with my health, I could always get the help I needed.  There have been times when I got help but didn’t follow up, figuring again, work work work, got to work.

And there were even times when I resolved to do something about my health. Of course, I didn’t follow up on those either, letting my strongest of attempts to get myself in shape die on the vine. But that was okay, too. After all, got to work, work, work because God knows, the work is most important and the company will certainly take care of all of us. (Do I have to use some sort of icon to illustrate the sarcasm?)

But then I started realizing something—what I call the Quantum Paradox of Health and Longevity.

Like the study’s participants, I began to see the possibility of something better—i.e., by attending to my health, I could be there for my family. I had to admit I have a choice: I can be better.

BUT—and this is a big one—I DON’T have a choice. What’s the trajectory of bad behavior? Where does it end?  An ER would probably be a best-case scenario given some of the possibilities. Do I want to end up unable to take care of my family?

"Hey, did you hear what happened to Mike? Okay, on to the next topic..." (Image: Wikimedia)

If I keel over from a heart attack, will the company I work for say, “Well, he worked really hard for us. It’s up to us to jump right in there and make sure we provide for his wife and kids?” At best, I’d be a 3-minute highlight of a team meeting, “Hey, did you hear what happened to Mike?” after which, my colleagues would review their agenda and lament how difficult it is to fill out the new self-assessment form.

So, it’s a paradox. I can eat, couch, and work myself to death, failing my family and ultimately myself, or do something about it. Is there really a choice?

So, here’s why I think this study worked—and please, let me know what YOU think. This study worked because for the first time, participants came face-to-face with the reality of the paradox. They couldn’t hide behind the delusions. They couldn’t pretend that they had no choice and they couldn’t pretend that they did. They had to find a way to get better because the alternatives were unthinkable.

In short, they had to reject the very notion of a choice, at the same time making a very deliberate one: they had to choose to do the only thing that would save their families and themselves.

Put another way, they’d already made their choice; they just had to understand WHY they’d made it.

What choices have you never already made? How did you come to understand them?

Looking forward to your thoughts!

-Mike Raven

 

 

References

Victor, R.G., Ravenell, J.E., Freeman, A., Leonard, D., Bhat, D.G., et al. (2010). Effectivess of a barber-based intervention for improving hypertension control in black men. Archives of Internal Medicine, 170(18), doi: 10.1001

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