Desert Orchids

If you tried to grow an orchid in the desert, it would go poorly. Orchids need high humidity, consistent, warm temperatures, and moderate light under the tree canopy. If you took that plant, and placed it in an environment that is arid, has huge temperature swings, scalding daytime heat, low humidity, and intermittent precipitation, no one would wonder why the plant failed to thrive.

All living things have needs, and all living things have environments in which they thrive– and environments to which they are not so well adapted. An orchid would not thrive in the desert– but a cactus adapted to the desert would also not thrive in a tropical rainforest.

While we would never blame a plant for failing to thrive in a given environment, we often blame humans for failing to thrive in a given environment. We blame people for not exercising, for eating poorly, for failing to attend to relationships, for being too stressed out, for using drugs.We place a heavy emphasis on personal responsibility and individual agency. This often creates a situation where we look at people who are doing poorly and attribute that to the individual. We do not comment on the difficulty of casual exercise, the lack of social support for families, the trouble accessing healthy food, or rising social fragmentation. We say, in effect, BAD ORCHID, it is your fault for failing to thrive in the desert.

This is not just a problem of external social messaging. It is a particular problem because we internalize this social messaging. We breathe in the air that surrounds us and the messages that we hear, and it becomes a part of who we are. Society does not need to tell us we have failed, because we are telling ourselves. The orchid wilting the desert thinks it’s my fault for not being able to thrive and survive in the desert.

For example, the weight of the American population over the past 50 years has steadily climbed. Then, as now, you would be hard pressed to find a lot of people who would raise their hand and say, “Yes, I want to be obese. Sign me up.” For the past 50 years being overweight has been frowned upon. There is a common belief, then and now, that a person’s weight is a matter of personal responsibility and moral fortitude– weight is an individual choice. Yet in the early 1960s, around 13% of Americans were considered obese based on CDC guidelines. By 2016, the obesity rate among American adults aged 20 and over had risen to 40%, with an additional 8% having severe obesity. The data from 2018 shows the total obesity prevalence had reached 42% among U.S. adults, with the number being overweight or obese reaching 74%. For children, obesity rates have tripled from around 5% in the early 1970s to over 19%.

Who are all these millions of people who suddenly chose to gain weight, suddenly and unexpectedly had a collective moral failing? How is it that 3 in 4 Americans suddenly lost the individual responsibility to manage their ability to eat and exercise?

There is almost no individual who wants to be obese, and at the same time, many obese individuals blame themselves for being that way. The runaway demand for new weight loss drugs (Ozempic, Wegovy, Mounjaro, and Zepbound) have been such successes in part because people do take responsibility for their weight, and desperately want to manage it. When offered water and shade for a price, the orchid pays up. At the same time, the orchid feels shame for withering in the desert, rather than recognizing that orchids do not thrive in the desert.

So much of the world we live in does not really allow us to blossom. We do not live in an environment that fosters healthy eating habits, spontaneous and meaningful social connection, routine movement and exercise, rest and relaxation. We know the importance of these things, we crave them, we seek them out– and we struggle to make them a reality. Like the orchid craves shade, we crave a connected social tapestry– and when we struggle to find it, we blame ourselves rather than recognizing that we are like the orchid, we are living in a desert.

The point of this is not that we have no individual responsibility. Quite the contrary– at the end of the day, each of us has responsibility for exactly one person. But we cause ourselves a tremendous amount of suffering when we fail to recognize that we are struggling because the world in which we live fails to support our needs. It is generally harder– more expensive, more time consuming, more planning, more effort– to eat healthy. Our lives are not set up for community and developing social connections. This is not a reason to abandon the quest; but acknowledging the difficulty, owning that fact that many of us live in an environment that does not foster happiness makes our own struggle easier to understand. It shifts the blame, and creates clarity. The problem for the orchid living in the desert is that it is in the desert– not that it has an unreasonable thirst. If we can acknowledge that, we can see our struggles for what they are, rather than a intrinsic moral failing

I’ll close with a plea from a hopeless, irredeemable believer in the capacity of humans to make positive change. So much of what we struggle with is bigger than any one of us– these are collective problems, problems to which all of us contribute, and problems to which we can contribute a small part of the solution. Just like the plants in the orchid’s rainforest create its own climate, our environment is the result of millions of our small, individual actions. Take small actions to make our collective environment better Cook a healthy meal, and invite people over. Give someone you know produce from the garden. Strike up a short conversation with your neighbor when you are heading out in the morning. Ride your bike to work, instead of driving. Find small actions you can take to change the environment in which we live.


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