Netflix’s new original docuseries, (Un)Well, examines the trillion dollar wellness industry in six episodes, each focused on a different trend: essential oils, tantric sex, the adult consumption of breast milk, fasting, ayahuasca, and bee sting therapy. Criticized at times for its near refusal to stake out a position on what many would call dangerous behaviors, the series allows both those who believe they have benefited from these practices and those who have been harmed to share their stories; additionally, it chronicles the journeys of individuals seeking to utilize each of these alternative treatments for the first time.
For each person physically or financially burned by essential oils, there is a parent who has finally found a blend to calm their overstimulated child with autism. For the wife whose husband died after completing a water-only fast at a retreat center outside of the United States, there is a woman who has regained her health and mobility. And for the woman who has eliminated the chronic Lyme disease from her body by stinging herself with bees, there are doctors worried that such a practice breaks their oath to “do no harm.”God wants us to care for the bodies that He has given us, but He also wants us to care for our friends and our families, and to live in community with others. Often, wellness trends have the propensity to drive us away from such community.
And ethical questions abound in some of these practices, too. Ayahuasca, a psychotropic, was once only taken by religious elders in ceremonies in South America, but Western tourists insisted that they too be allowed to consume the elixir at the ceremonies. Now, both abroad and in the United States, ayahuasca is consumed readily by tourists who claim that it has cured them of addictions and mental illness. In the United States, many of these retreats operate under questionable religious pretenses, labeling themselves as churches to receive religious exemptions from laws prohibiting the distribution and consumption of the plant. Likewise, Tantra, a practice originating in India, has also been increasingly appropriated as it has moved to Western culture—often neglecting other elements of the practice to fit Americans’ particular interest in its promise for better sex. As such, much sexual abuse has occurred under the guise of “education” at Tantra retreat centers.
Most of the practices explored in (Un)Well took place outside a practicing physician’s prescription, but interestingly, some of the retreats for ayahuasca, bee sting therapy, and water fasting employ medical professionals and Western medical measurements of wellness in order to “protect” clients. Some trends, like the consumption of breast milk by body builders, were eschewed as downright unethical by medical professionals interviewed (citing the number of infants in the United States who still cannot be served by milk banks due to low supply); other trends, like the use of essential oils, primarily had scientific experts more skeptical about efficacy. In kind, most proponents of these alternative wellness practices expressed their own negative perceptions of Western medicine’s safety and efficacy. What is particularly striking about those featured on the documentary, though, is their desperation for a wellness or healing that cannot be found anywhere else.
(Un)Well asks us to what extent we will go to heal and strengthen our minds and bodies. Certainly, it is not only alternative medicine that forces us into answering this question, as nearly all of us have seen chemotherapy ravage a body in a Hail Mary attempt to save it. And doubly, as someone living with several chronic illnesses, I do not reject the benefits of modern or alternative medicine. But as some of the problematic practices in (Un)Well indicate, our society’s continued desire to curate healthier, “better” lives with magic bullet treatments leaves little time for us to contemplate difficult questions about the purpose of suffering and what living well really means for those of us who know that true life will only begin when our earthly bodies return to dust.
What, then, is wellness? And when does our pursuit of it become dangerous? For Christians, I think we are left in the dreaded grey area as we pursue to remedy our physical bodies—for there is no clear line, but rather an imperative to follow what God convicts us of as we discern His will for our lives. Certainly, however, the Bible provides us with guidance for all things, and this is no exception.
Many of those featured on (Un)Well spend tens of thousands of dollars on unproven treatment and travel, and the series highlights a few practitioners of these methods who actually died from their treatment. Of course, this scenario occurs with those seeking healing from modern medicine, too. However, in the case of those seeking alternative treatments, the controversial nature of the practices can often cause a rift between family members and the patient. What happens when a husband insists that this 40-day water-only retreat in another country will be the answer to ongoing gut problems, but his spouse disagrees, or finds it financially unfeasible? In our pursuit of health, if we neglect the warnings from and concerns of our families and communities, can we truly find any wellness on this broken earth?
When a pursuit of physical wellness becomes our idol—when it is where our money, time, energy, minds, and hearts are focused to the neglect of the other things God has given us—then we are abandoning heavenly treasures for earthly ones. Yes, God wants us to care for the bodies that He has given us, but He also wants us to care for our friends and our families, and to live in community with others. Often, wellness trends have the propensity to drive us away from such community. In some cases, alternative wellness trends (like multi-level marketing systems), train us to do just the opposite—to see our communities only as places to sell products and receive the promise of better lives. In other cases, the promise of complete healing on this earth becomes a fixation, leading us to believe that there is no value in suffering.
To seek to avoid all suffering, though, is ultimately a pursuit to deify ourselves and to not partake in the human experience. To say that I am above suffering is to say that I can somehow avoid all pain while my neighbor must endure it alone, without me to empathize. How might I seek to ever faithfully take on the burdens of my fellow brothers and sisters (Galatians 6:2) and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15) if I refuse to accept the experience of suffering in my own life?
Suffering is not without purpose. As Alan Noble reflects eloquently,
“Your existence is a testament, a living argument, an affirmation of creation itself. When you rise each day, that act is a faint but real echo of God’s ‘It is good.’ Rising out of bed each day is also a decisive act. Living is a gamble. It is a severe gamble. You do not know the suffering and sorrow that awaits. You do not know the heartache. But you know it is coming for you, of that history and literature have testified without counterclaim. To choose to go on is to proclaim with your life and at the risk of tremendous suffering that It is Good. Even when it is hard, it is good.”
Our willingness to endure suffering in this temporal life bears witness to our faith that this life is just that—temporary. It is temporary and hard and messy and downright painful. But ultimately, that is what draws us closer to Christ, and each other. It is in knowing suffering that we truly know just a minuscule fraction of what Christ did for us (Philippians 3:8–11). I don’t think God intends for us to suffer needlessly—to reject Tylenol or surgery or even chemotherapy. But I don’t think, on earth, at least, that we will not suffer. Pursuit of every trend to cure every ailment does not end our pain, and does not make us well. To put our hope in anything other than the resurrection ultimately leads to disappointment.
As we fight bodies that are fragile and ultimately failing, I take comfort in David’s simultaneous acknowledgment of God’s ultimate sovereignty over his life, yet petition for comfort in Psalm 138:8:
The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me;
Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
The Lord’s purpose for our lives is not our own, for our own certainly would not require pain. But we do know that the Lord does purpose for us to live in empathetic community on earth, sharing not only in His suffering, but also in each other’s, too. And when His final purpose is accomplished, we might finally rejoice that “it is well.”