An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

A good friend and spiritual man, Maryknoll priest Fr. Bill McIntire visited us last weekend and reminded me of this wonderful Cherokee legend.  I keep thinking of it and feel the need to remind others.  There is so much truth in this simple message and it reinforces for me a philosophy I have about life, parenting, and medicine.  The principles in this story shape my practice of medicine and life.  And yes, it is a practice.  The “wolves” are there all the time and require a practice of feeding the one you want to grow regularly.

Mind: This teaching obviously focuses on the importance of attitude.  The practice of mindfulness is related to the cognitive path you pave within your own brain.  You can choose to see the glass half full or half empty.  But it takes a training of your mind.  There is more and more evidence of something called neuroplasticity.  We have the power to reinforce how the neurons in our brains connect.  Frequent feeding of anxiety, worry, and negativity will feed one wolf.  Watching repeat negative news reports, telling your child he/she is poorly behaved repeatedly, seeing what you didn’t get done or did poorly over and over again are some examples of this reinforcement.

There may be even more to it.  For example: the recommendations have changed even for self-breast exams.  I used to advise women to do a self breast exam monthly.  But, now I recommend being familiar with what is normal for you.  A monthly ritual of checking in with your body and seeing that you are being good to it and noting changes is one thing.  A monthly ritual of paranoia and looking for trouble and worrying about cancer is another.

Body: The wolf parable talks about feeding and what actual food you put in your mouth certainly has impact on what grows and what “wolf” wins.  If you think of the two wolves inside you as genetic and molecular code for how your cells will react, then is makes perfect sense to give your body good food!  Overwhelming it with too much sugar and refined carbohydrates or food that is hard to tolerate or that has poor nutrients or chemicals will encourage one “wolf,”  but giving it less processed “whole food” will nourish the other.

And then moving the body, circulating the “good stuff” will strengthen you, sending healthy messages to those cells and groups of cells.  Do you exercise to celebrate your body and your health, to feed which wolf?  Do you do it out of fear or celebration of the life you have?  The same goes for your eating, your medications, your supplements.

Spirit: There is a wonderful synergy when the mind and body are treated well and you feed the “good wolf.”  They are part of the whole but the sum is greater than the parts.  It is a mystery of life that I have chosen to believe and that supports that “wolf” balance in me.  Our bodies, our genetics, our chemistries are so amazing and resilient. It takes practice and daily feeding of the wolf you choose.

Perhaps that is what is out of balance in our approach to health care today.  We have so much scientific knowledge and ability to “kill” the bad wolf.  I love and appreciate that aspect of modern medicine.  If the bad “wolf” is attacking in the form a cancer or bad infection or severe pain, let’s stop it but also listen to it and learn from it.