Spring has sprung and I’m letting my son play outside. It’s 2020 and Covid-19 has taken the world by storm. Which means I’m living a life of crime. To make matters worse, my child is not playing alone. Two other families are letting their kids out which makes us conspirators in a Class C Misdemeanor. We’re the rebels. It’s not that we don’t value the lives of others or take the pandemic seriously. We abide by the Executive Order and have limited outings to essential needs. As a mini community, we thoughtfully weighed the risks and agreed to a circle of containment between our three homes. Plus, my son is an only child. He bounces off the walls and becomes a new breed of animal when left to his devices and this mama has only so much Uno in her.
Most would agree that a month without social interaction for children is a reasonable sacrifice to save a million lives. But how about to save 100,000 lives? And what if the sacrifice is not for a month but for six months, or a year? It’s an ethical dilemma that raises larger questions. Do we ask the nation’s children to forego play, if it could reduce our neighbor’s risk of dying? Would I accept an end to human hugging and handshakes, if it would save my own life? These questions bring up deep issues around the right way to live.
The answer to such questions, whether asked on behalf of oneself or society at large, depends on how we hold death and how much we value play, touch and togetherness, along with civil liberties and personal freedom. There is no easy formula to balance these values. Speaking of which, if you haven’t read Bill Gates wisdom on what the virus has to teach us, please stop and do so. He speaks eloquently to the spiritual lessons to be gained during this challenging time.
At What Costs
Over my lifetime I have watched society place greater emphasis on security and risk reduction. As a kid, it was normal for us to roam from home “until the street lights came on” – behavior that would earn parents a visit from Child Protective Services today. Compulsive safety seeking has manifested in hand sanitizers everywhere, surveillance cameras at schools, intensified airport/border security, as well as a constant fear of litigation.
The mantra “safety first” comes from a value system that makes survival top priority – which is a natural human instinct. However, when taken to the extreme must depreciate other values like fun, adventure, and play. Interestingly many traditional and indigenous cultures are less protective of their children, whom they love no less. They allow them risks and responsibilities believing this is necessary for children to develop self-reliance and good judgement. Not to mention healthy self-esteem and character.
As a society, it seems that what we fear most is our final destination. We live in denial of death, from our obsession with youthfulness to warehousing of the elderly, we do everything we can to ignore the inevitable. Even our compulsive shopping is a way to maintain the illusion that the impermanent self can be made permanent through attachments. Covid-19 has brought our expression of a separate, invincible self into glaring light.
Like all fear, the anxiety around the virus hints at what might lie beyond it. Anyone who has experienced the passing of someone close knows that death is a portal to love. It by-passes everything to the heart of what matters most. The pandemic is forcing us to look deeply at how we are living our lives and relating to others. Personally, it’s forcing me to confront how I’ve slacked in parenting and let technology take over.
The paradox of living from fear is that it rarely gets us closer to comfort. Despite security systems in almost every upper middle-class home, people are no less anxious than they were a generation ago. Despite elaborate security measures, the schools are not seeing fewer mass shootings. Despite phenomenal progress in medical technology, people have become less healthy over the past thirty years.
The measures being instituted to control Covid-19, likewise, may end up causing more suffering and death than they prevent. Minimizing deaths means minimizing the deaths that we know how to predict and measure. It is impossible to measure the added deaths that might come from isolation-induced depression, or the despair caused by unemployment, lowered immunity and deterioration in health that chronic fear can cause. Additionally, loneliness and lack of social contact has been shown to increase inflammation, depression, and dementia.
Generally speaking, microbes are not our enemies. They are our allies in health. A diverse gut biome, comprising bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and other organisms, is essential for a well-functioning immune system, and its diversity is maintained through contact with other people and the world at large. Excessive hand-washing, overuse of antibiotics, and lack of human contact might do more harm than good. The resulting allergies and autoimmune disorders might be worse than the infectious disease they replace. Socially and biologically, health comes from community. Life does not thrive in isolation.
This war-on-germs mentality brings similar results to those of the War on Terror, War on Crime, and the War on Dandelions. First of all, it generates an endless, exhausting war. Second, it diverts attention from the ground conditions that breed terrorism, crime, and weeds. As a gardener, instead of fighting a losing battle, I focus on developing a richer soil to promote a robust plant life. And therein lies part of the answer to the problem at hand.
To understand the point about ‘ground conditions’, consider a few mortality statistics from Italy. Based on an analysis of hundreds of Covid-19 fatalities, of those analyzed, less than 1% were free of serious chronic health conditions. Some 75% suffered from hypertension, 35% from diabetes, 33% from cardiac ischemia, 24% from atrial fibrillation, 18% from low renal function. Nearly half the deceased had three or more of these pathologies. Half of all Americans are beset by obesity, diabetes, and other chronic ailments. So, should we blame the virus or underlying poor health?
Case in point: California acupuncturists have been forced to shut down, having been deemed “non-essential.” This is understandable from the perspective of conventional medicine. But as one acupuncturist observed, “What about my patient who I’m working with to get off opioids for his back pain? He’s going to have to start using them again.”
Rethinking the Old Paradigm
The resurgence of orthodoxy is so intense that anything remotely unconventional is considered laughable. For example, I’m not hearing news about the benefits of elderberry syrup, reishi mushrooms, or good old sunshine; nor the healthy impact of reducing sugar while upping Vitamin C. These are not hippy-dippy speculations about wellness. They are supported by extensive research, but they don’t fit the criteria of the modern medical model. Yet another reason why these unusual, trying times are a chance for us to re-evaluate prevailing theories of health, while asking us to a take a look at our current lifestyle choices.
I’m not advocating we cease social distancing or that supplements are the solution. However, we can use the break from normal to consciously choose a better path. Do we double down on protecting the separate self, or do we accept the invitation into a world where all of us are in this together? This question goes beyond medicine, visiting us personally, politically, and economically. The hoarding of toilet paper and canned goods is a classic example. Do we take enough and trust that others will do the same or do we pull a Mr. Burns and take as much as we can?
Understanding that we are all in this together, halts the search for blame as the answer to every problem.
As Covid-19 stirs our awareness, we have the opportunity to forge a new normal. In my neighborhood, people are walking their dogs, families are riding bikes and couples are jogging side by side. It’s inspiring. They are smiling and staying engaged, albeit six feet apart. On the compassionate front, the rebel clans have decided to reign in our kids. Honoring the value systems within each family is challenging. It’s a difficult situation as no one wants children to feel left out. We’re all doing our best.
Finally, please don’t read this as a Pollyannic plea that love conquers all. The point is that there are many ways to gauge healthy living. Fear, along with addiction, depression and host of physical ills, flourishes in a terrain of separation and trauma. And don’t think for one minute that any of us are escaping trauma. To be alone is a primal fear, and modern society has rendered us more and more alone. Every act of compassion, kindness, courage, or generosity heals us from the story of separation, as it assures us that we’re in this together.
Sections of this blog first appeared in an article by Charles Eisenstein. Many thanks to him for inspiration and information.