Pandemic Culture

Pandemic Culture And Community Healing

The recent outbreak of Swine Flu has reminded us of a fact the developing world is aware of every day – epidemics are an integral part of the human experience. Its easy to forget in a modern culture how much we’ve been touched by plagues throughout history. Its in the songs we sing ( “Ring Around The Rosie” is purported to refer to death by the black plague )and the sanitized nature of our foods and hospitals. Our relationship with illness on this scale has in many ways defined who we are.

I studied the history of Death & Dying in America during my undergraduate years of college, inevitably this meant studying plagues. As Yellow Fever tore through early American settlements they revealed the culture of caring for the dying and dead. The mothers of the day chronicled their childrens illness and deaths in an effort to discover some way to combat disease. Some of the letters and journal entries still exist today. They revealed the true nature of an epidemic: it is a disease of “us”, not “me”. It is in essence community illness.

Its difficult not to see epidemics through the eyes of the medical establishment. After all they care for us during these times and have saved millions of lives through the successful application of remedies. But if we are to take the larger lessons from these events we must not be trapped in their vision of conquering illness one person at a time. We have to step back, way back to discover the lessons revealed by communities struck ill by diseases.

The mothers who cared for their children and shared their attempts to heal with each other represented a web of healers deeply involved in their communities. As our communities became societies, as the middle class developed, that web of healers was dismembered. It became illegal for women to practice healing of any kind. It was taboo for any but an undertaker to care for the dead. Ultimately it became unlawful to practice medicine without a license – that process being tightly controlled by one of the last surviving Guilds – the AMA.

That web provided many valuable services to a community, not the least of which was common sense in the face of lifes great tests. Its easy to dismiss what this kind of perspective can offer, especially because folk healers were effectively shut down and villanized by the medical establishement. But their wisdom lives in each one of us, it has traveled through the generations and helped us all to be born and survive. Lets see if we can apply some of that wisdom to what we know about plagues in such a way that may be relevant to todays challenges.

Lessons From The Past:

  • Those who can leave, often will leave. While history does report that officials and members of some religious orders did stay to tend to the ill, in most cases those in authority were the first to sequester themselves away in rural areas and abandon those in densely populated areas. People in authority because they wanted power quickly became useless, those who were in authority because they wanted responsibility were often heroic. In these times local goverment in small areas tends to function better than state or national government. This is because people know each other, people are connected. Big institutions usually lack the humanity necessary for a sustained, intimate response.
  • Plagues reveal relationship to all things. Plagues tell us a lot about who we are and what we’re connected to. How we work, eat, and play impact whether we’re infected or how we survive if many others are infected. Thats why people who made perfume rarely caught the plauge, they were constantly exposed to solutions that contained medicinal plant essences. Have you checked out your way of life lately? Do you eat a lot of fast food? Do you live in an apartment building or a home? Do you have children in school? Do you work out doors or in doors? Do you have to travel for work? These are all indicators of the threads that connect you to life. Is the plague traveling through all or some of these threads? Is it time for a lifestyle change?
  • If a community is healthy it will survive. Disease kills people, plagues kill communities. They can wipe out groups entirely, or just bruise them. The Bubonic Plague was so devastating for reasons that reached beyond the nature of the disease itself. Villages and cities at that time were likely to be made up of highly impoverished populations. These “peasants” were often forced off of farms their families had been living on for generations by the ruling class to work in horrible conditions. Their previous means of caring for themselves (fresh food, folk remedies and health resulting from an invigorating way of life) were stolen from them. Crammed into squalid conditions, unable to connect with the natural world they were ripe for spreading disease and quickly falling ill.
  • Nature contains the remedy as well as the illness. All illness and remedy exist within the natural environment. They may not be remedies in the way science thinks of them, but in terms of caring for an overall community, they are abundantly available. If Europeans hadn’t vilified cats as instruments of evil the plague would have been much easier to control as it was spread by rodents. A rural diet that is likely to expose one to live foods (pro-biotics) and natural anti-biotics (where we got penicillin) can curb the spread of illnesses as well. If a community can find sustained balance with its environment it will be much more resiliant when confronted with plagues.
  • Poverty kills. Thought the plague eventually impacted all city dwelers – rich or poor, poverty was always its home. We often mistake rural living for poverty, for it is often the case in the past and in third world countries today that those living in rural areas have poor sanitation. In reality it is the breakdown of health and wellness from lack of abundance that invites illness. Lets take this one step further, an impoverished attitude kills, an attitude of abundance sustains. When we believe in lifes abundance we are attracted to it. When we make those things vital and alive our closest compainions we invite health and vitality.


The Chief Solution:

There are many ways to talk about what we can do but I think the following statement sums it up nicely: tend to your garden. Though this problem is based in our community, the solution starts with each one of us. When I say tend to your garden I mean both metaphorically and literally. If you have a garden, spend time there! It will keep you out of crowded theaters and put you in an environment that will stimulate your immune system, give you some peace of mind, and maybe even result in some healthy home grown food.

Metaphorically speaking, tending to your garden means looking at our way of life. We need all of us to be making healthy, grounded choices. Spend more time caring for that which truly nourishes you in life. Make sure your life contains blooms. Remember how important love and joy are to health. Check in with your nutritionist, accupuncturist, homeopothist, massage therapist or even shamanic practitioner. Our community healers are still out there, in many ways they’re stronger and better trained than ever. Lets encourage their presence to grow by seeking their advise in these times. Their guidance along with what science has to offer could turn this modern pandemic into a healing transformation.

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