Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
June 2013 - Volume 13, No. 6
The Age of the Autoimmune
A significant shift took place in Western literature somewhere within the 20th century. Until that time the classic resolution of a dramatic conflict seemed to require a redeeming death. This was true in classic fiction, theater, opera, world mythology, religion, and even popular fiction. I recently heard a broadcast comment from the backstage of the Metropolitan Opera, that as long as you sang in the chorus, you wouldn’t have to die. In Leo Tolstoy’s 19th century novel, Anna Karenina, his heroine had to die in the end. Religions make central the presence of a redeeming sacrifice - be it a turtledove, or a human - such as a warrior or a holy person, or an innocent (a virgin or a child).
Then, something happened. In the place of a redeeming death, the world began to discover Love as the victorious redeemer of human conflict. Not without sacrifice, but with a glory that transcended human suffering and ennui; Love became the glorious answer. That’s why the entire world loved our American movies back then. It was glorious, happy, new, and was enhanced by the cult of the romantic cinema superstar.
What I found remarkable is the parallel in the history of medicine. Up through the 19th century, and into the 20th, the primary disease problem was an external organism, finally in the mid 19th century identified as a unicellular microorganism by the name bacteria - some of which were disease-causing. With the development of antibiotics in the first half of the 20th century, such medical scourges as tuberculosis (“consumption”), malaria and others, could now be virtually eliminated. Another great victory was the Salk vaccine, effectively eliminating polio. (I am old enough to recall from my elementary school childhood looking around the new classroom every September to see who was not there? It must have been a terrifying time for parents.)
However, true to the humor of Mother Nature, within four years after drug companies began mass-producing penicillin in 1943, after this god-send to the massive war injuries of D-Day, microbes began appearing that could resist it.
We can see the same parallel in Western religion. The previous cults of sacrifice and suffering gave way in the 20th century to the cults of Love. In Christianity, the crucifix lost power, and the unadorned cross itself began its gradual exit from some places of sacred worship. The 1960’s gave us the “Love decade” where the cult of Love forsook any spiritual connections, except “sex, drugs, and rock & roll.” Only too soon was the whole movement co-opted by marketing and capitalism - the very antitheses of its original vision. The “peace sign” itself has been stripped completely of its original revolutionary soul energy.
As I have noted, the energies of history have recently shifted from the redeeming power of death and sacrifice to the transcending power of “love.” The enemy is no longer an external intrusion (the disease-causing bacterium). Also the answer no longer has to involve protracted suffering (yes, we live in the age of Vicodin).
But history (or Mother Nature) does not stand still. In the latter part of the20th century, there were two dawning problems in medicine: One was the revenge of antibiotic resistant disease organisms, and the second is the full emergence of the Autoimmune disease.
A good technical definition of the latter is the following (from Wikipedia): Autoimmune diseases arise from an inappropriate immune response of the body against substances and tissues normally present in the body (autoimmunity). Today the great diseases are those in which the “enemy” is the body’s own immune system - itself. The body fights the body. The immune system attacks and destroys its own healthy body tissue. The enormous list (80 different types, according to one source) involves almost every human organ system. We can begin with cancer, arthritis, MS, fibromyalgia, lupus, type-1 diabetes - the list goes on and on. This is the current frontier of medicine, yet the actual “cause” seems to remain enigmatic. If the body is going to kill itself by using its own inner resources, then we have to go inside and look - at ourselves.
There is no outside agent to conquer or blame. There is no transcendent ‘love’ energy to redeem it. This is the time beyond Bernie Siegel. The body simply battles and destroys the body. To add to the irony, many of the previous victories of medicine seem to be returning to bite us in the proverbial rear end. One of the most dangerous places these days is to be a patient in a hospital. The actual mortality statistics from prescription medications alone is staggering.
I began by noting the parallels in literature, medicine and religion. And those parallels continue on this third front.
What is the current mood in modern literature? We still hold on to our mystery novels, as well as our love stories. But there’s been a great shift from searching “out there” to searching “in here.” And yet resistance is mounting here also. Even psychology, which was one of the original modern pioneers of “in here,” is suffering from the take-over by a new force - the energy of the corporation (read: pharmaceutical industry, and its kissing cousin the insurance industry). Look in any physician’s office, and see the same thing. The autoimmune disorders of the human body are not the only ones. At the cultural level, the current iteration of the corporation itself (the 1% of popular parlance) represents a huge autoimmune disorder of our time. It seems nobody can touch it. Government can’t, the democratic process can’t, the economic institutions can’t, Justice can’t, nor are there any “love” energies that can touch it. And yet it destroys even itself from within.
Consider the writer Steven King. His genius is to ‘go inside’ ordinary people, and bring to ‘horrible life’ the demons hidden there. But he doesn’t do it just to scare people, he does it to offer a path out, giving us accounts of the unselfish diligence of unassuming individual people, which alone can tame the unleashed demons.
Clinically, I think of suicidal patients. Deep within there’s usually a secret hope that by engaging death, life can prevail - an ancient idea that still has great meaning. But when the body itself is killed, so also is any ‘hope.’
This recent Memorial Day, there were many heart-felt words spoken about death and sacrifice and honor and love of country - “that these dead shall not have died in vain.” More than before, we are also speaking of the broken who do return, seeking their own place of honor, healing and opportunity. Either the mood seems different this year, or my own ears are more finely tuned.
It is right that there must be death in order that there be life. It’s an old truth. But it can so easily go wrong. There are young men and women who seek a purpose, and are willing to live out that purpose by sacrifice and honor and even death - for the love and sake of the rest of us. That’s our national immune system. That’s why we remember on Memorial Day.
Consider our response to 9-11. Our response was right. And our response was oh so wrong! We fought back as if we were fighting an external enemy only. We have sacrificed over-mightily in terms of national resources and depletion to “fight that enemy.” But remember the lesson of the antibiotics. Within only four years there were new resistant strains emerging. And now fiercely resistant strains have become themselves a new national emergency.
Our “enemies” know the ways of sacrifice and honor and death, and use them well - but against an outside enemy - us! It seems they have not matured to the point of looking within for the enemy that is even more destructive. Nor do they have to - they win by the law of the autoimmune disease. They can simply get us to ‘fight crazy.’
The secret to ‘defeating’ the autoimmune disease is to look within - no matter what’s there. That’s where things are collapsing. I’ve seen churches and other ‘spiritual’ organizations that are rotting from within - and yet they keep naming the “devil” in others. We now see government rotting from within - by putting more energy into hating the other side than by cooperating for the welfare of their constituents. Much of education is rotting from within by alienating and then losing our best teachers. I’ve seen psychology rot from within by becoming a slave to psychopharmacology marketing, and becoming the “moral police” rather than the autonomous adventurers of our culture. My list can go on and on.
The great danger of our time is that we will all rot from within - allowing ourselves to kill off ourselves. And in the meantime we continue to demonize others instead.
I offer this: The greatest red flag is when we want to blame or demonize others. At that moment - Stop! Nothing of value will happen if we continue. Don’t look for an outside enemy. Don’t even look for “love” to fix it - though it does have its place. Look within - down there where nobody wants to go. Then you’ll understand the old secret of wrestling life out of death. Our medicine is beginning to point there. Our literature is beginning to point there. Our spiritual resources are finally getting around (again) to pointing there.
Then, someday, having wrestled into shape healthy immune systems, we can again become and stand as a commonwealth of abiding and vibrant health.
That’s each of us I’m talking about.
It may be in medicine that the ‘going within’ is represented by new advances in the fields of genetic engineering.
And it may be in politics that the ‘going within’ is represented by the ‘grassroots democracy’ movement that we have seen emerge so prominently in recent elections and in the “occupy” energy of a few years ago.
I do realize that for a single ‘newsletter’ I bit off quite a chunk in this one.The more I look at things, the more parallels emerge.But then, that’s why I like to write.
This one really hit home
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