Why We Get Sick

Disease, discontent, illness, depletion, exhaustion, pain... chronic...these are states that  many of us embody whether it shows up in ongoing or acute health challenges, addictions, mental disturbances, existential crisis, or an undefined sense of something being not quite right. We are depressed, anxious, overweight, lonely, hypertensive, apathetic, disconnected, and discouraged.  What is going on? Why are so many of us sick and tired and unable to feel well?

In my experience, these many faces of imbalance and diminished vitality are visible across political, racial, economic, and gender lines. As a systems thinker and big picture explorer, I am constantly looking for the path that connects the dots between seemingly disconnected proofs of an internal world in flux.

As much as we have been taught to pop a pill or buy a product to soothe a symptom from headache to feeling frumpy, the quick fix never lasts because we do not live in a vacuum. We are, like trees, deeply intertwined with our environment, our roots and branches interlace with other life forms beneath the surface and rub up against other systems of support above ground.

And yet, we are told that the greatest achievment an individual can aspire to is to "stand on your own two feet", to be "ruggedly independent", and live life on your own terms. The trouble is, we can't produce our own food with our bodies (like plants), we don't make the water we need to survive, and most of us aren't hairy enough to clothe ourselves in garments of our own production (like animals). 

We need a community to both meet our needs and create meaning for the experience of birth, death, rebirth, grief, and celebration over the life cycle of a human. Unfortunately, most of us in the industrialized world have lost this container due to constantly moving for work, better opportunities, and quite frankly, because the colonization model of settlement and conquering requires dividing repositories of indigenous knowledge and scattering it so that continuity of meaning and relationship become impossible. 

When we remember where we have been, what we can provide for ourselves through right relationship with the world around us, and who we are AS INDIVIDUALS IN AN INTERDEPENDENT GROUP, it is much harder to convince people that they need to do what you tell them as an external entity.

So what happens when we are separated from our villages, rituals, and land?

Side note:
While this is a reality for those indigenous to this (North America, Turtle Island) land, white settlers who came here were also displaced from their homelands and villages, often due to oppression and exploitation by those with more means. That they came seeking a better life, free from the slavery of poverty, powerlessness, and politics only to enact the same system upon the First People does not cancel the effect of being uprooted from community and place and forced to create new meaning in an unfamiliar space. If anything, it highlights the cycle of dis-ease caused by being removed from one's physical and social center of meaning.

We experience the trauma of loosing personal relationships, meaning, and the land that sustained our lives.

Couple that with the political and economic ideology of capitalism and competition and the resulting trauma is channeled into exploitation, expansion, and isolation rather than being processed, grieved, and healed.

Cancer is defined as "cells that divide without stopping and spread into the surrounding tissue". I see striking similarities in the aims of capitalism. Its goals are to cultivate constant growth and market expansion with the only limiting factors being supply and demand. When the body is unable to supply the cancer's demand for further territory to expand into, the body dies. Cancer kills because it cannot stop itself from proliferating into all of the available space, leaving no room for the body to regenerate and heal, and therefore, exhausts the host's resources. 

When we look at the diseases that pervade industrialized societies, we discover that they share a common feature-they are all based in an overactive inflammatory response. Whether you are dealing with Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, Hypertension, Cancer, Food Allergies, Lyme etc, they all involve inflammation.

Inflammation is a natural body response to invasion of pathogens like viruses and antibodies, but like the fight or flight response in the brain, it is meant to be active for short bursts of time, not constantly. 

So why are so many of us chronically inflamed? Why are our bodies behaving as though they are under attack?

Perhaps our diseases are a result of being reduced to commodities (human resources, anyone?) that can be shuffled around, fed whatever is cheapest to produce, and disposed of at will. Of being removed from ancestral knowledge of and access to foods, plants, and medicine found in our native environments that heals and sustains our health. Of being displaced from communities that hold us as spiritual, interrelated beings capable of evolving, nurturing, and being in relationship with the seen and unseen worlds we live in.

We are enfolded in a system of group competition (capitalism) and personal competition (individualism) instead of cooperation. Scientists like LynnMargulis began challenging the supremacy of the Darwinian ideal of survival of the fittest (competition) and advanced the notion that cooperation (partnership) is actually what drives evolution forward. 

We have been moved from our physical places and removed from the healing of being able to see the natural changes occurring over time in our homelands.

We have had our cultures stripped away from us along with our rituals for processing grief and making amends for those we have wronged, be they plant, land, animal, or humanimal.

When we think about the earth as our mother, the one who gave us life and sustains us, is it any wonder that women in particular also bear the mark of the imbalances in this industrialized cultural and economic system? Women are particularly susceptible to the effects of degradation of natural systems and nature itself, hence 1 in 3 women have chronic illnesses in the US. 

Rupa Marya is a highly trained, incredibly visionary MD who teaches and practices at the University of California San Francisco. Her work focuses on the intersection of society and disease. 

I recently heard her present at the Bioneers conference this Fall and she drew powerful parallels between the effects of colonization and chronic illness in the US. She spoke of the profound effect placing illness within a larger societal context can have on people's lives and wellness.

During her talk, she shared a story of treating a woman of color for crack addiction. After a particularly acute encounter with chemically laced crack, Dr. Marya called the woman's family together and told them the larger story of how crack had been deliberately introduced into communities of color as another attempt to disempower and disenfranchise. When the woman heard this, she related that she had always felt that her addiction was a personal failing instead of a cultural attack. Long story short, she never returned to the drug. 

I share this story because there is hope and a path to wellness, though it is more complex and interrelated than popping a pill or trying a new oxygen therapy. 

The pathway to wellness is a road back to community, context, and meaning. Just as the body is made of many moving pieces that all perform specific functions which animate the skin container of soul, so too, do we exist in a dynamic dance with other humans, ideas, and the earth itself. Our path to health is a path to wholeness, that is, recognizing and re-weaving our lives so that we begin to know our neighbors, plant, animal, and soil....and through that knowing, we begin to remember what it is to grieve, to make restitution, and to evolve.



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