Guilt Kills

New conclusion: the American preoccupation with health is more likely to destroy the country than terrorists, economic collapse or electing any of the current presidential candidates.

Well, maybe not the last one.

Health nazism apparently came to the fore some time in the seventies as Americans became more fearful about everything under the sun (including the sun). The jogging craze and widespread acceptance of granola were the first signs. As it turned out, Jim Fix, the guru of jogging, died on a jog, and most granola products were found to be no healthier than the far more enjoyable Snickers bar.

However, Americans have a talent for assimilating contradictions, and nothing could stop the movement. We had a racquetball craze and cholesterol panic in the 1980’s, smoking bans, organic markets and the explosion of gyms in the 1990’s, and the identification of obesity as public enemy #1 and various yoga crazes in the new millennium. I submit that all of these movements have been detrimental to American health and recent studies showing that American life expectancy isn’t what it should be after all this attention on living and eating right have left health experts frustrated.

The problem is that the motivation behind health nazism is not health or out love of life, it’s the fear of death. Death is no longer seen as the natural end of life. In America, death is seen as the ultimate failure and entirely your fault. You die not because of a bad break or crummy genes, you die because you ate too much, drank too much, smoked too much and spent more time on your ass watching the tube or playing video games than getting your body fat down to healthy levels and if you want to blame that on your genes, you’re a loser anyway and you deserve to die, so don’t ask me to pick up your health care costs.

So there.

This orientation has created massive guilt in millions of Americans who like to eat, drink or smoke, and guilt does weird things to people. Guilt turns us into liars because we don’t want anyone to know when we show weakness and act on that urge for a juicy cheeseburger with bacon, an ice cream sundae or a cigarette. Then we feel guilty about lying, which only leads to adding a side of large fries to the cheeseburger, whipped cream to the sundae and working our way through a whole pack of smokes. Guilt adds to our already-high stress levels, and because we know that stress will kill us, we try to comfort ourselves with another cheeseburger, a thick milk shake or a cigar. Then we beat ourselves up, punish the hell out of our bodies at gyms and start down that long road to eventual knee replacement surgery.

I find it interesting that health nazism has grown parallel to the rise in the productivity of American workers. No one will convince me that the two are connected, workplace wellness programs be damned. Productivity has risen because financially-driven executives have cut staff and expect the remaining workers to pick up the slack. This has raised stress levels, and because the three-martini lunch is politically incorrect and you can’t smoke in the workplace unless you work at a cigar store, there is only one thing a worker can do to relieve stress in the workplace.


I’m not sure if any studies have been done on this, but most people I know complain about how they gain weight once they get a job. Workplaces are now all-day smorgasboards full of stressed-out people looking for a little comfort. Want to get rid of that batch of tasteless lemon cookies your neighbor brought you? Bring them to work. Too many leftovers in the ice box? Bring them to work. Once we had a bash at my place, bought too much food and found ourselves stuck with three dozen brownies, two large pizzas and two of the worst pies ever baked. The next day I put them out in the break room at 8:30 in the morning and they were gone in an hour.

I’m sure everyone who stuffed their faces felt that momentary delight that Billy Pilgrim felt when he spooned the syrup in Slaughterhouse-Five: “Every cell in Billy’s body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause.” But an hour later they probably all felt horribly guilty and scheduled an extra half-hour on the elliptical.

Americans are so busy worrying about their health that they’ve forgotten how to enjoy life. Terrified by statistics and the embarrassment of death, we’ve lost touch with our instincts, common sense and the age-old wisdom about moderation. We are now extremists of another kind and when we fail to live up to our unrealistic standards of perfection, we feel stressed out and guilty—and both states are extremely unhealthy.

To become truly healthy in America, we need more laughter, more pleasure, less guilt, less health care . . . and a whole lot more human forgiveness of our so-called weaknesses.

Author Q&A with Robert Morrow


Seattle sunset

Q: Ringing True is both the title of the book and the name of the religion in the book. Was it your hope that the religion might take off and develop a following?

A: Not at all. It’s been interesting that some of the early readers have responded positively to what is called “The Numbers,” the name of the religion’s text. One reader remarked about its essential humanity being something people everywhere could agree on. It’s very validating, but if you read “The Numbers”, the religion isn’t about gaining followers. It’s about encouraging people to accept responsibility without having to follow anyone or anything. Ringing True is essentially an empowering religion, so my intention is to spread empowerment and encourage people to figure things out for themselves.

Q: Even though the religion is described as a “world religion,” most of the institutions and norms that are satirized in the book are American. Ringing True seems to be a very American novel.

A: Yes and no. America is so globally influential it’s hard to have a discussion about many parts of the world without also describing their relationship to America. For good and ill, our power and culture are omnipresent. One of the characters comes back from South America and says, “We are everywhere.” One thing you always hear from natives in other countries is how loud Americans are – and we are, in terms of both volume and in presence. The primary object of the satire is the American media, which is certainly loud enough to be heard around the globe. But, I also take on American corporations, religious zealots, Hollywood and other “American icons” that have a stunningly powerful influence the world over.

Q: You introduce a bisexual character into the mix. What was behind that?

A: The simple answer is that I lived in San Francisco for years and learned that loving relationships can come in many forms. Confronting the things that are uncomfortable is part of what gives satire its power. Many Americans are still uncomfortable with non-traditional relationships and, frankly, they need to get over it. Why worry about the ways adults can love each other when we have millions of them killing each other? That’s an example of seriously skewed priorities. 

Q: A lot of the book deals with fame. What was your purpose behind this theme?

A: Fame has to be the most overrated value in the world. With reality television, competition shows and programming like Jerry Springer, it’s stunning how many people are willing to humiliate themselves to have their faces on the TV screen. And as far as the truly famous are concerned, I think fame can have the debilitating effect of separating a person from the talent that made him or her famous in the first place. Fame is primarily based on the myth of the power of an individual – sort of a superhero characteristic. This is why actors get all the attention despite the fact that film is an incredibly collaborative enterprise.  No actor is going to be remembered for a great performance if the sound is mangled, the lighting wrong, the direction shabby, the make-up applied incorrectly. I think my basic message is similar to that of the religion in the book: let’s stop elevating and worshipping others and realize that we all have something valuable to contribute to each other and to our world.

Q: You certainly take capitalism to task in many ways – lay-offs, waste, politics, jobs without meaning. How would you fix it?

A: Well, you certainly won’t find the answer in more government regulation because all that does is drive the corruption underground and empower the rule-makers. Having been an executive, I can say that too many of my former executive colleagues lack a sense of responsibility to others – one of the three key responsibilities in the book’s religion. They can say they’re responsible to the shareholders, but that’s often a convenient mask for their own self-interests. You can’t legislate all irresponsible behavior out of existence; it is more of an issue of moral teaching and character. Maybe we should send a copy of Ringing True to all the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies – or just a copy of “The Numbers”.