The world has a way of surprising us. Modern humans consider themselves more sophisticated than those who lived hundreds, or thousands, of years ago. We tell ourselves that we have a greater understanding of how the universe works — what we know now is the way it is. No it isn’t. That has always been a myth by which people lived, and necessarily so. If you can make no sense of your world, you would find it difficult to live in it. However, making sense of the world and believing you know everything about it are two very different things.
When I studied physics and chemistry in high school in the mid-sixties, I was told that what we were learning was the sum of knowledge in those areas. It was the truth. It was how the universe worked. I have kept up my interest in science, largely through reading, and I am not amazed that around half of what I learned forty years ago is now ‘known’ to be not so. Many of the basic principles remain unchanged, but half the facts have disappeared. This is because they are not facts — they are attempts at explaining the world. Most of us live our lives based on these facts. And I am not saying you shouldn’t. What I am pointing out is that the universe is changeable and our understanding of this changing universe is feeble.
What we call ‘laws of science’ are not laws. A law is a prescription for behaviour, a proscription against certain behaviour. In our day-to-day lives this means our behaviour — towards each other and towards our society and, in a global setting, towards other societies. Laws of science are attempts to encapsulate what we observe about the universe into the simplest forms possible. An example is E=mc². What is wrong with these simplifications is that when observations do not match the dictates of the ‘law’, we assume that the observations must be wrong. We are loath to change the ‘laws’, forgetting that they are not laws, but merely an encapsulation of our current understanding. The universe does not feel the slightest obligation to adhere to these laws.
The scientific method underpins science. This method can be summed up as: formulate a theory; through observation and experimentation, test your theory; in the process, try to disprove your theory; adjust your theory and start again. Knowledge is a fluid thing — it is constantly changing in response to experience. At least, it should change in response to experience. That it doesn’t, is the result of fear — fear of change, fear of being wrong, fear of the unknown, fear of letting go.
Most people want the security of things being predictable; few people are comfortable with a changing world. Helen Keller said:
“Security is mostly a superstition … It does not exist in nature … Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
And the American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, said that courage is risking life on a conclusion that tomorrow may disprove.
The writer Morris West said through one of his characters:
“We are more readily betrayed by our certainties than by our doubts and curiosities.”
I mention these things as a backdrop to what is coming.
All of you will have at some time in your lives had to grapple with the implications of scientific laws, as they apply to your health. Our understanding of the human body and how it works is encapsulated in what we can broadly call medical science and it informs medicine as it is practised day-to-day. One of the failings of medicine is the belief that everything that happens in the body can, ultimately, be explained through physics and chemistry. When there is acknowledgement that many aspects of what happens in and to the body cannot be explained readily through physics and chemistry, modern medicine makes an attempt to create explanations through the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry. Much of what is practised as psychology and psychiatry has little scientific basis. Thus, when the medical scientist cannot rely on science, she or he calls on something non-scientific, but dressed up as science. In our attitudes, we have not moved far from where we were a thousand or more years ago.
What are the implications of this when we place ourselves in the hands of doctors? We go to a doctor when we suspect or know that there is something wrong with us. We may even know what is wrong with us. We expect the doctor to tell us what is wrong with us and what we should do about it. We then, often, feel obliged to follow the advice given, even if we intuit that it is not entirely correct or even completely wrong.
What is going on here?
It could be several things. We place our trust in doctors and expect them to know everything about health. This is a blind trust which is never borne out in reality. Also, when we go to a doctor, we have an expectation that she or he will know what to tell us and will know what to do; we expect that person to be able to make us better. And then there are people who wouldn’t dream of going against what their doctor advises, for fear of upsetting the doctor.
There have been many great doctors who didn’t see themselves in that way — they saw themselves as aiding the patient in recovery of health, not as the agent of it. One such doctor, William Osler, said: “My favourite prescription is time in divided doses”. Such doctors saw themselves as partners to their patients, not as experts. They therefore demanded the patient take some responsibility in the process of healing. The word ‘doctor’ means ‘teacher’, and doctors should be reminded of that. If you can find a doctor who is also a healer, you’re doing well.
To heal is to make whole. It implies that illness is an absence of wholeness. The therapist and healer Paul Solomon defined what health was. He said:
“Perfect health is the natural ability of any soul to experience precisely the symptoms that it most needs at any given moment, to respond to those symptoms and move on to the next experience.”
Paul Solomon saw each person as a soul inhabiting a physical body, thus his reference to the “natural ability of the soul to experience symptoms”.
Illness is therefore not something that is simply happening to the body, or the mind. It is not something imposed on a person from outside. This is not to dismiss external agents which may lead one to be ill. And I’m not going to argue the existential extreme that if you have a tree fall on you, you need to take responsibility as you were obviously in the wrong place at that moment. Although, living your life as if that were the case, makes for an exciting life and one without any blaming of circumstances for anything.
What Paul Solomon was referring to was the possibility that if we have symptoms, we have something to learn from those symptoms. He also states clearly that perfect health is not the absence of symptoms — it is having the symptoms you need in order to learn. And he doesn’t allow much rest, as he says that perfect health is about the response to the symptoms you have and then move on to deal with the next set of symptoms.
In 1984 John Harrison wrote a book, Love your disease: it’s keeping you healthy, in which he explored this idea.
Cancer is not an entity separate from who we are. Every day, each of us produces cancerous cells, and these should be dealt with by the immune system. When the immune system fails, the cancerous cells can multiply to the stage where they become a problem. There can be nutritional reasons for this failure, or environmental reasons for the over-proliferation of cancer cells, or there can be emotional, psychological or spiritual reasons. One doctor has spoken of a patient who developed testicular cancer which then also moved into his intestines. When he was told of the diagnosis he expressed relief, because it meant that he would no longer “have to go out there” — life had become too difficult for him. There was a clear link between his attitude to life and the symptoms he had — there was a clear lesson for him.
There are women in the USA, with a mother or sister who has had breast cancer, who have both their breasts removed because they are afraid of ‘getting’ breast cancer. Many of these women end up with cancers elsewhere in their bodies.
If we believe what I have said as being true, what does it say about the ‘cancer industry’? There are more people in the USA involved in cancer research, diagnosis, treatment, etc, than there are people in that country with cancer. Almost every week we read in the papers or hear on the radio or TV that such-and-such a cancer cure is closer; that we are “winning the war on cancer”. This is not a war and if it were we would be far from winning it. There is talk of progress in the ‘fight’ against breast cancer, but all it means is that it is more often diagnosed earlier and that therefore the survival rate is increased — from the time of diagnosis. But little has changed in the overall number of women dying of breast cancer. The same can be said for colon cancer: more, earlier diagnosis but no overall change in the number of people dying from it. The treatments offered by the cancer industry are consistent with the idea of the cancer being separate from the person who has the cancer — there is no inkling that the human being with the cancer should be engaged in dealing with it. There have even been places (again in the USA) where it is illegal for a person to seek treatment for a cancer other than by surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy; all of these are ‘treatments’ which treat the cancer as separate.
So where does this leave you in relation to your wellbeing and your health? It is my belief that we are primarily responsible for everything we experience. By embracing every experience and asking, “what can I learn from this?”, we have power in our lives. By relying on others to tell us who we are, what we are and how we are, we give up that power. Every experience is an opportunity for growth.
Taking full responsibility for our experiences is scary — and exciting. It leaves us with no-one to blame, not even ourselves. There is only the experience and our response, which itself becomes an experience. It means thinking for ourselves. It means working things out for ourselves. It means making choices and acting on them; and, as Oliver Wendell Holmes suggested, those choices may be wrong. But it is better to take that power to yourself than to leave it with others.
We have the power to opt out of the medicalisation of our lives and the commercialisation of our experiences. This does not mean that we don’t make use of medicine or engage in commerce — it means doing so consciously and for our benefit, not theirs.
[This is an edited transcript of a talk given to the organisation ‘Cancer Victors and Friends’, Melbourne, 17 June 2007]