Primal Error

I’ve never heard it put quite this way, but it seems to me that if you want to achieve success in any discipline, you’ve got to start with the right units. No matter whether you’re working with kilograms, light years, millimeters or angstroms, you’ve got to know where to draw your lines. If you don’t, all your subsequent efforts will be off-target or entirely wasted.

Now, one would think that, given our obsessive interest in all things human, we would be pretty clear by now as to what constitutes the basic unit of humanity. Surely this must be well-traveled territory in human sciences, biology, sociology and social psychology. Surely we must know the basic unit of us.

So imagine my surprise when I googled this very question and found no results. “What is the basic unit of humanity?” didn’t even generate a single hit on the world’s most powerful search engine.

But this just can’t be right. Did we really just overlook this fundamental question? More likely, we simply took it as obvious. That is, the basic unit of humanity is the individual. It’s so blindingly clear to our modern, Western eyes–we feel like individuals and we see individuals all around us, so that must be the basic unit. Thus the beginning and end of our inquiry.

Moving on, we crafted our disciplines, professions and practices around this unquestioned assumption. We trained doctors, we built hospitals and research facilities. We created vast industries to treat our individual bodies in an attempt to rid them of disease and make them healthier.

And sometimes it works. Every now and then we get it just right. If I crash my bicycle, I make my way to the ER and they patch me up. Medical professionals focus on my broken, individual body and send me back into the world, ready to ride again. I am grateful for their work.

But just as often, this focus on individual bodies and welfare doesn’t work at all. Many times, it even makes things worse. If I have a lifestyle disease, where does the problem really lie? Now it’s not so clear. If I have obesity or diabetes, is it a failure of my personal willpower and behavior? Or does the problem lie outside my body, in my natural and cultural support system? Is it something about me as an individual, or is the problem actually spread around, across my environment and my community?

This is where we go astray. Our belief that the individual is the basic unit of humanity leads us into all manner of blindness and even stupidity. Oh sure, we understand–conceptually and abstractly–that there are powerful forces that lie outside the individual patient or client. But these things lie outside our scope of practice and therefore must be ignored. We are so much like the proverbial man in the darkness, searching under the streetlight for his lost car keys. The keys could be anywhere, but we look around the lamppost because that’s where the light is.

The problem is that our foundational assumption was wrong at the very beginning. But it was an assumption unique to the Western mind. In contrast, native people didn’t see the world that way at all. They never would have placed the individual at the center of their world view. In fact, to define the individual as the basic unit of humanity is a profoundly un-American concept (as in un-Native American).

The wiser course is to view the individual in context, as a living organism inside a larger, life-supporting system of habitat and tribe. This new-old perspective is both emotionally satisfying and scientifically sound. We know it in our hearts and in our research papers: there are massive and powerful continuities between our bodies and the habitat and people around us. These things keep us alive. And it is this totality, this unity that should be the basic unit of humanity. To view and treat the body in isolation is not only spiritually taxing, it is also scientifically flawed.

It’s now becoming clear that our medical-industrial complex has been operating under some bad assumptions for a very long time. We’ve wasted vast amounts of time, energy and human life, all because we started with the wrong reference point. Millions of people have literally suffered and died because of our misplaced focus. If we could go back to the zero point of our bad assumption, modern life and health would look dramatically different.

Obviously, we can’t turn the super-tanker of the medical-industrial complex around overnight. But in the meantime, I have a message for my physicians. That is, stop treating me like a medical object and stop treating me like an individual. I am not an object. I am not an individual. I am living animal, deeply embedded in my habitat and my community. I am powerfully connected to environmental and social life-support systems around me; I depend on them for my life and my health. If you want to heal me, you must address the totality of my life in context. You must question, honor and if possible, treat the whole. Otherwise, you might just be wasting your time and mine.

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