Illustrations by Kavya Singh and Anna Zylicz.

Culture and Health: A Chat with Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

This interview series is a collaboration between IDEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Building H to imagine how we might design health into everyday life.

Joanne Cheung
Aug 10, 2020 · 10 min read

Health is very much about relationships. If anything, COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear not only how our individual health is connected, but also how interconnected the world is — between individuals and their communities, humans and their environments, present-day experiences and the histories and stories that set their context.

In this interview, we’re speaking with Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee — filmmaker, composer, Naqshbandi Sufi teacher, and Executive Editor of Emergence Magazine — to learn about the role culture plays in health and the importance of relating to the nonhuman world.

Joanne: As an editor of a magazine, how would you define health and has that changed since Covid-19?

Emmanuel: In many ways, we’re a magazine about health, but if we say we’re a magazine about health then you would assume it’s medical or about healthy eating and exercise. I think Americans have a very simplified view of what health is…we put it in a box and say, “‘That is health’ and an expert is going to tell us how to be healthy”.

Yet, it’s almost impossible to be “healthy” if you define it as a relationship with yourself without acknowledging that you’re part of a larger “culture” including both human and nonhuman things. If you are healthy but what is around you is unhealthy, then that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I think many of the problems that we’re dealing with are a result of that worldview. We may be a very healthy person because we are in the position to have a healthy diet or exercise or make choices. But those are almost irrelevant to what happens around us, including the detriment that we may cause other people by being able to take those choices, or how choices are made possible by multi-generational privilege.

So in relation to your question about COVID, ironically, our next issue was going to be on the theme of “Apocalypse”. It was scheduled to come out in June, so we were three months late.

One of the first conversations we had was with David Quammen, a wonderful science writer who wrote the book Spillover, which in a sense predicted the pandemic occurring. It was about the root causes of zoonotic diseases, which stem from how we interface with the natural world. It was peeling back the layers of information bombardment to “Where did it come from?”

The root causes of these diseases are from how we relate to the living world and encroach without thinking of consequence.

Relating to the Nonhuman World

Joanne: What are some of the themes you’re exploring now?

Emmanuel: Our editorial ethos is ecology, culture, and spirituality, stories that weave those threads together and explore how those threads have become separated to the point of unhealthiness. We explore all the ways that storytelling can function as a tool for healing and weave those threads back together to help us understand, question, orient ourselves, and hopefully provide a foundation to process and adjust to this new reality.

One of the first things that we were talking about was vulnerability, and how we’re all ultimately in a space of vulnerability and unknowing. Those are themes that we’ve been exploring in content for a long time, but now they’re easy to frame in a very immediately relatable, collective context.

We can no longer pretend that we aren’t interconnected.

We’ve been saying at the magazine, “The cracks in the system that is this country are now chasms, and those chasms can’t be ignored”. It’s a tremendous opportunity to get to the root of what’s happening. There is a role for the storyteller right now to reveal those chasms in different ways and to share their experience, their perspective — not necessarily the answers because all good stories are mostly questions rather than answers.

This is the first time since World War II that we’ve had a collective experience that gives us the opportunity to re-examine what a healthy society looks like. The unfortunate thing is that we are trying to respond to the virus following the same pattern that led us here in the first place, we aren’t examining the health of society and responding with that in mind.

Joanne: I really love the framing health as a part of a relationship. I think so often health is seen as this very objective measurement: “one person’s health”, your framing makes me think of the role of storytelling in the pandemic. Now everybody has a story to tell. So it seems stories have also become more participatory as an outcome of the pandemic. It might reinforce this notion that we must be connected in order to be healthy.

Emmanuel: Perhaps what they’re sharing is of more interest and has more meaning. Before, it seemed like everybody wanted to share their story on social media. Now, the pandemic created a collective, real experience where the entire world is sharing in one connected experience. So it’s like every story has a relational point that is much more accessible than what you had before. The work of a storyteller in all the mediums is to find that relational point of entry for the audience to connect. We don’t need to do that right now, and so that just changes the whole dynamic.

Stories As Seeds, Stories As Threads

Joanne: When we’re separated from the living world, it’s impossible to define health in a singular. The word in itself has no meaning unless it’s contextualized in relation to another word. This is also making me realize that in this collective experience, we’re all storytellers.

Emmanuel: There is no one story. There are many stories that need to be told at this time that help us orient ourselves, process, understand, move forward, stay still, whatever is needed. I think that we need stories that are willing to abandon the dominant story of progress and constant growth. The more we can question that narrative, from lots of different perspectives, the more we will be able to take full advantage of this moment. This moment is really showing that the dominant narrative is, in my view, dead — and we’re trying to keep it alive. Much like how the American dream has been dead for quite a long time, but we’re unwilling to let it go.

So stories that challenge the dominant narrative offer a way forward through examples, questions, or just through that exploration. Stories are like seeds, and the role of the storyteller is to plant that seed. This is something we think about at the magazine a lot. When someone listens, reads, or watches a story, it’s like someone’s watering and engaging with that seed and it becomes alive — a plant. And that plant might bear fruit, it might live and pollinate in relationship to other plants. Then all of a sudden it’s creating shade and allowing other species of seeds that were planted a long time ago, or maybe planted now, to come up. Then maybe all of a sudden, there’s a different microclimate.

The other metaphor that we use a lot is that stories are threads. When you put lots of threads together, they weave a fabric, And that fabric is something that can clothe us, or that can hold us. There are so many ways you can think about the use of a fabric. It can be a carpet on the floor that invites people to sit on it. It’s a very ancient archetypal metaphor. We need stories that can help weave containers to help and hold us at this time. If you’re held in a fabric, suddenly you can rest, you’re secure.

What we’re experiencing right now is a tremendous opportunity to decide what we take with us into this uncharted unknown future and what we leave behind.

We can each examine what we can leave behind. Very practically, do I need to travel as much in order to find meaning? Can I reconnect to where I live with a new understanding and appreciation? The things that we decide to leave behind will be diverse and varied and that’s the beauty of it, because it will hopefully cause us to take stock of who we are, where we are, and what gives us meaning. Then, on the bigger level, we can leave behind this ridiculous notion that everyone in America should pull themselves up by their bootstraps without government support for basic things like healthcare. As a result of the pandemic we’ve put more money into our economic system than anybody else in the world and it hasn’t resolved things because it didn’t in any way try to respond to it from the root cause.

Collective Experience, Collective Narrative

Joanne: Now is both the time to think about the content of stories as well as form. We’re in this moment where it’s extremely participatory and everyone is having this shared experience. Is there a new form of story that might emerge that accounts for this collective experience?

Emmanuel: The role of participatory storytelling is really interesting. But I also think that we have a limited view of what a story is. It’s a limited idea that in order to have a participatory story, we all have to be contributing as creators. I really believe that stories are alive, but only if you relate to them as alive. We view stories as entertainment or information, but in cultures that existed for thousands of years stories were alive, they were myths that had meaning, you related to them, your relationship to them was what allowed them to exist.

We have separated ourselves as audience and storyteller.

I think that we actually can engage with stories in a shared collective experience if we relate to them as something that is made alive by listening. Going back to the metaphor of the seed, if the storyteller plants the seed in the ground, it’s the person who is listening who makes it grow and come alive.

Who you are in relationship to that story means you are going to experience it differently. That’s something that isn’t taught. In school, it wasn’t said, “Everybody in this classroom should have a different interpretation of Lord of the Flies”. No, “Lord of the Flies is this, Kill a Mockingbird is this” and as you get older, it’s almost even worse. We move away from the child experience of a story, where they can see themselves as those characters. When we get older, it’s frowned upon in some circles to believe in a story that is seen as not real. You know, we’re real in this world, the story is the fantasy.

Re-Centering on the Nonhuman World

Joanne: Going back to the fact that we are inseparable from the living world, I think in the past it has been very easy to ignore these connections. I wonder if there’s something that might be learned from how stories grow or how one nurtures a story. How might we maintain the life of the story? I think that’s actually very much related to how we might think about health as well.

Emmanuel: I think we need more stories that do not put the human experience at the center. We’re so used to the idea that it’s the human experience that makes the story. But that’s a very Western-dominant way of looking at stories — that wasn’t always the case. I think we need to return to certain older ways of telling stories, which included the nonhuman experience as something that was valid and alive. The more we can actually talk about the world as something that is living, the more we will not distance it.

If you go somewhere that has been very negatively impacted by our actions to the environment, it has a real impact on you, it becomes part of your story, your experience. One of the equalizers that climate change is going to bring forth is that we will suddenly not just be looking at other parts of the world dealing with this, we will be dealing with it ourselves. I spent quite a bit of time working on a film that took place in the tar sands up in Alberta. It’s a very impactful experience just seeing that space. You can smell the expanse of it. You can’t go back from there.

For me, storytelling is about remembering what is alive so that we’re reminded that we are in a shared relationship with it.

I think that’s really going to be the great journey that we take on over the next several generations — having to reconnect to the living world.

We’re all sharing in one experience within this living world, but each one of us has a different individual experience and relationship within that shared collective experience. Can we hold those two experiences together without destroying the living world? We really struggle to hold them because we view them as paradoxes and competing worldviews, but it is possible. Many Indigenous societies, spiritual traditions, and cultures knew how to hold multiple experiences at the same time and maintain a balance. The individual need and the collective need are not separate, but they function differently while still being in relationship to each other.

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