On War and Peace
No, I am not planning to read the book as my “quarantine project.” No one needs to do anything extra right now - anything more than what they must. Seriously.
War and peace is a theme I am playing with for a book I want to write about healing.
How do people heal deeply? What does a body/mind/spirit need in order to heal, if healing/health is defined as being in a state of balance, equilibrium, thriving?
I believe it is the exact opposite of what medicine, fitness, and health culture teach us.
Modern western medicine is a war machine. It’s all about the fight. The war on cancer, conquering disease, fighting infection, defeating illness, obliterating pathogens, battling mental illness and addiction. Medicine fights and fixes. It is in a constant state of war. Our doctors and nurses are “on the front lines.” They are heroes. Often times they don’t stop to eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom. The sense of urgency is everywhere. We even portray the body’s internal defenses – the immune system – as a fighting machine. Killer cells. Antibodies (literally “against the body”). We put up barricades, mount defenses, build immunity in pursuit of the enemy, illness.
In a public health crisis there is some value in the rhetoric and energy of war. We need to be on both offense and defense against this virus right now. We need to marshal more resources, coordinate strategy, deploy soldiers, and make sacrifices. At the macro level I can understand the need to “be on a war footing.”
But what happens on the individual level? How does a state of war affect a single body?
When the body is at war, it is in a stress response. It is in fight/flight mode. Bodies cannot heal when they are in a prolonged state of stress. Stress exacerbates illness and dysfunction. This has been proven time and again by research.
In brief, the stress response is a survival mechanism. It evolved in humans and other organisms to protect from deadly threats. For most of human history, those deadly threats were occasional and resolved quickly. A predator appears. We fight or flee. We survive, and the threat is over, or we die and the threat is over. It’s an acute and extreme biological state. It’s for dire emergencies.
In an emergency (say being chased by the proverbial tiger) the body instantly reallocates resources to optimize physical functioning (fighting or fleeing). Blood flow and energy are diverted to the large muscle groups and the brain, and away from all non-essential functions (things that can wait until we’ve escaped). These include digesting food, mounting an immune response, reproduction, growth, tissue repair, detoxification, and producing hormones and neurotransmitters other than cortisol and adrenaline.
Makes sense so far, right?
But what happens when the threat doesn’t resolve? A chronic illness, chronic pain, or ongoing mental and emotional stress? The suppression of all of those bodily functions begins to take a toll. We get GI problems. We are more susceptible to infections. Injuries heal more slowly. We hold on to toxins. Our hormones become unbalanced (thyroid slows, estrogen, progesterone and testosterone levels drop or fluctuate). This exhausts us. But we are trained not to honor the exhaustion but to push through it. We get a cold or a sinus infection but we go to work anyway. We develop pain. We suppress or push through that too. Our energy and mood take a dive. We have drugs for that. We don’t acknowledge and honor the stressors that are at the source. They compound.
Eventually we crash. We’ve all heard these stories of people who heroically triumph over all kinds of adversity until one day they simply can’t do it anymore. The body whispers, hoping we will listen. We don’t. It gets louder. We still don’t listen. It will scream, it will escalate until we are literally taken down.
What’s the alternative?
Don’t fight the war in the first place. Choose care instead. Declare peace with the body, no matter what is going on with it. Respond to fatigue, illness, and pain with rest, to hunger with food. Learn to live in peace with our negative feelings. Sit with grief, anger, frustration. Allow and accept them. Treat ourselves with compassion. Accept that bodies are constantly changing. They grow ill, they age, they get injured, they die. It’s what bodies do.
I am not saying we should reject medicines that cure infections, procedures that save lives, interventions that relieve suffering. Of course not. We just have to stop understanding them as WAR. We need to work with them, welcome them into our systems in a peaceful and relaxed state. Silence the words that evoke fear. Provide support, optimism, beauty. Love, tend and befriend. The outcomes will be so much better.
The poet Rumi wrote, “be ground, be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up where you are. You’ve been stony for too many years. Try something different. Surrender.”
We all need to think for ourselves what it might mean to stop fighting with our bodies and start listening to them. We all need to reframe the pursuit of health as a fight, a set of sacrifices, the denial of pleasure. We need to tune in and listen to the subtle messages – fatigue, pain, tension, negative emotion. Then instead of asking, “why is this happening,” and “how can I make it go away,” ask “what does it mean? What do I need?”