Chesterton said that the same problem that afflicts the modern medical community was troubling the modern social welfare community. As a result, people would continue to suffer. Illness, dis-order and dis-ease would continue to be the defining aspect of people’s lives.
The trouble being that, like the modern medical community, the social welfare community had learned to focus only on symptoms without ever considering what the overall health of a person would look like and then approaching the problem with the question of, why did a healthy person become ill?
The recent events in my life are both metaphor and example of this on many levels. People who were attempting to help me, to alleviate my distress and disorder over the past 30 or so years were ensorcelled by my symptoms. My symptoms received treatment but no one thought to sit and ask why would a healthy person develop these problems? Everything was always looked at backwards – if the symptom was anxiety, the question is what am I anxious about and how can I control it? If the symptom is a poor immune system the question and approach becomes well, how do we make the immune system stronger? If someone had thought to ask, why did you – as a healthy, functioning person – begin to have all these problems, the approach is much different. Instead of focusing on whichever symptom was yelling the loudest, you get to see all of them together and then placed in context of my life as a healthy person. It is not a case of why did I develop one or two symptoms, but why do I have a cluster of 10 or 12 when just the year before I had none?
It is like when an elderly person falls and breaks their hip. The rush is to understand and address the problem of the bones. But the bones are the symptom, the broken hip is a symptom – the question is, why did a person – no matter how frail and elderly – who was standing and safely mobile just hours before, fall?
When you ask a question like that, it makes you look at the instance holistically or, in its entirety. And it definitely is more complex and time consuming then just identifying a symptom and treating it.
Because you cannot treat a symptom, you can alleviate it but it will come back. Yet treating a symptom is easier then looking for a cause because symptoms tend to be readily seen whereas root causes may require a more in-depth look. Treating the root causes, providing a cure, may also mean that the patient must put up with the dis-comfort of their symptoms for longer in order to address the root.
I work with a street newspaper and I see this kind of thing reflected in how we approach social issues. Advocates rally around the issue of affordable housing but affordable housing is a symptom of a much more encompassing illness. Should they achieve adequate affordable housing they will have alleviated a symptom, but come no closer to resolving the issue of homelessness. The homeless will just have affordable housing, but now they gain a new syndrome – grinding poverty and social ostracism. Homelessness itself is a symptom. The illness is how a healthy and functioning society can allow people to starve – to abandon their own members. But that is a very complex and uncomfortable question.
Or the issues with nuclear energy right now. We can stop or start nuclear energy programs based upon a fear of accidents. We can devote acres of written space to the debate and rabble rouse at state houses and conventions – but nuclear energy is a symptom of a broader illness. If we do not address the root illness of our abuse and consumption of all energy, we will never rid ourselves of deadly accidents that come from our attempts to find a different energy source.
Or human rights…if we continue to advocate for the flavor of the month in human rights we will always find yet another group of people who are oppressed and abused. Human rights abuse is a symptom of the larger illness of the human tendency to devalue people who are not members of their group or tribe. It is a symptom of the illness of a lack of a global sense of morality to govern our actions.
But we want out symptoms relieved. Symptoms are in the immediate and uncomfortable. Often, the root illness causes no discomfort by itself – only through its symptoms. In America, where we are culturally trained to expect not to work for cures but to take pills that magically resolve dis-comfort, it is harder to get people to see the value in effort. Just look at the constant battle that goes on about high blood pressure and cholesterol – we know that changing diets and patterns of exercise will help this (and many other things) but 75% of the people with these symptoms refuse to participate fully in a cure. They want a pill that will alleviate the symptom and allow them to continue as always.
Or the national debt, Congress is locked in a pissing match between parties right now about whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. Our debt is a symptom of a much deeper illness; the lack of responsibility and understanding of the impact of our choices and actions on others. The debate about the debt ceiling is the equivalent of what I have talked about with the phrase “I’m sorry” in relationships. “I’m sorry” has become meaningless. It is used to alleviate the dis-stress caused by having been caught doing something that one shouldn’t – but it no longer touches on the psychological needs of accepting responsibility for the effect the action had on another person and examining why it was all right, even in the moment, to do whatever to someone you profess to care about deeply.
The only way to begin to break the enchantment that symptoms hold for us is to become willing to be in dis-comfort and to look beyond that dis-comfort for the source. The only way to begin to identify the source is to firmly have in your mind and heart an understanding of what being healthy and whole looks like. What would life be like for you if you had no such dis-comfort and no symptoms? What would it feel like? What would society be like if everyone could provide for themselves at a comfortable level? What would it be like to live in a nation that could support itself and its decisions?
If we had that wholeness, what would no longer exist? When you begin to look at things this way, your list of symptoms will actually grow for there are many that do not cause the kind of attention getting discomfort as a broken hip but are more influential.
Or we can remain, with our band-aids and pills, constantly trying to fix small bits and failing to understand why nothing ever changes.
2011. Cassandra Tribe. All Rights Reserved.