Reuniting the Self: Autoimmunity, Obesity, and the Ecology of Health (Part 2)
This article is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.
What is a human being? A human being is a nexus of relationships: the sum total of the connections among his or her cells, organs, and inner ecosystem; connections to other human beings that define the psyche; connections to the rest of nature and this living planet that allow life to exist. Modern thought, recognizing only a small subset of these as intrinsic to our beingness, offers us a much smaller self: the separate self of the selfish gene and the economic man, the skin-encapsulated ego and the Cartesian mote of consciousness. Rendered small, we are rendered sick.
We are relationship. The connected self that is the true human being has been reduced at the hands of civilization, leaving an isolated remnant that is not whole. Innumerable configurations of this unwholeness, or lack of health, afflict the members of our culture, each in a unique way. Depending on the vagaries of nurture and genetics, we each adapt differently to the onslaught of Separation. As Part 1 of this essay describes, some of us embody our culture's self-other confusion on a literal, somatic level as an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system attacks part of the very organism it is meant to defend and on which it depends, much as we do to planet Earth.
The loss of self that lies at the heart of our civilization manifests in many less literal ways as well, physical and social. Consider cancer: cells that have forgotten their proper function, and instead devote all their resources toward an endless growth that eventually kills the host, and themselves as well. Modern humanity appears to be behaving exactly so in relationship to the earth. It is by no coincidence that the toxic byproducts of our collective iniquity are precisely what cause cancer in the individual.
As is the case with self-rejection and autoimmunity, a psychological level mediates between the collective and the somatic. In fact, in economically developed countries (i.e., those in which the conversion of nature, community, and culture into money has proceeded the furthest), the primary manifestation of the wound of separation is psychological: feelings of loneliness, alienation, anxiety, depression, anomie, and muted rage. They are the interior image of the starvation, physical desperation, torture, military violence, imprisonment, and genocide that go hand in hand with our power, waste, and empty wealth. These primary psychological conditions, in turn, engender physical and social conditions that draw the suffering outward into a tangible form.
To put it more simply, the things we do to hurt the world hurt our own souls, and hurt souls create sick bodies and a sick society. I will illustrate how this happens via the example of obesity.
It is not surprising that the lonely, diminished self of modern civilization should crave to restore something of its lost being. We have been shorn of the connections that make us whole. Your ancestors in a hunter-gatherer tribe or agrarian village lived in a matrix of connections that we can barely imagine today. At least I can barely imagine it, and not without weeping. In those times, every face you saw day-to-day was a familiar face. The relationships that sustained life were personal relationships. You knew the person who grew your food and cooked your food, you knew the person who built your house and made your clothes, you knew the person who sang your songs and performed your entertainment. Most likely, you knew them intimately, as they knew you. You knew each other's histories, who your first love was, your narrow escape from death at age four, that embarrassing incident at age 12, your pranks and your personality; you knew the stories of each other's parents and grandparents as well. You were woven together in a rich social tapestry that defined who you were. Being intimately known by others, you knew yourself as well. Furthermore, any action reverberated in a very tangible way out into the community, and back again to you. It was obvious that what you do to others, you in fact do to yourself. The Golden Rule was not originally a rule at all, but a description.
Today these relationships still exist in some sense: as before, we more or less depend on other people to grow our food, cook our food, make our clothes, build our houses, and provide our entertainment. But today, these people are strangers, and the relationships are no longer love relationships, but money relationships. Today, as some 60% of all meals are prepared outside the home, even the person who cooks our food is often a stranger. Outside a very narrow realm, our relationships become superficial: if all our needs are provided by strangers, what indeed is there to do together? Friendship becomes a matter of getting together to consume something: food, drink, a movie. Joint consumption brings out nothing of our real selves. We cannot know or be known. Yet this is an essential human need; it is essential to our very identity. If we are not intimately involved in each other's life stories, we suffer a deficit of being. We are not whole.
We are similarly bereft of intimate connection to the land, to nature and to place. Our ancestors knew their place in the web of life, knew each animal and plant species as a distinct individual, each hill and stream, and the relationships among all of them. This web of relationships defined who they were. Today we live in a machine world of deliberate uniformity, a world of standardized products and identical right angles, words and numbers and dollar signs. Inevitably we too feel like a cog in the machine, a standardized component with a standardized education, job description, degrees, credentials, and technical skills, and suffer a consequent loss of identity. Who am I and what makes me different? In a generic, uniform world, we cannot know.
Tormented by the alienation and loneliness of a diminished, isolated self, we do our best to add on to that self. There are several ways to do this. The most literal way is to enlarge the body. We become fat, literally expanding our physical selves. But of course, no amount of added corpulence can compensate for the grievous loss of being that comes from cutting ourselves off from the social and natural universe.
If you are not fat, maybe your attempt to compensate for the cutoff of your larger self takes another form. Another way to extend the small self is through money and possessions. Why are people so greedy for these things, far beyond their objective utility? Greedy for the things we call "mine"? It is yet another futile attempt to remedy our deficit of being. The separate self grows and grows, assuming bloated proportions, but this hypertrophied agglomeration of flesh or possessions still falls infinitely short of the connected self, whose being partakes in that of the whole universe.
In the last five decades, the average size of a new American home has more than doubled. Beyond the body, the home is the most immediate extension of the self. It has grown in tandem with the decline of community, civic participation, and public space. As the social dimensions of the self have atrophied, the home has grown in fake compensation, and life has moved indoors. Unfortunately, this expanded private realm is all the more lonely, driving further acquisitiveness. We gape at the super-rich, wondering, aghast, how they could have so much and still want more, wondering how much will be enough. In fact, no amount is enough. No amount of house or money or possessions or status or prestige or power or fame can ever meet the need to reestablish intimate relationships with human community and nature.
As is well-known, obesity is correlated with low social class. The usual explanation is either that poor people are ignorant ("less well-educated"), or that they can only afford crappy, fattening food. I disagree. I think a deeper explanation is that the rich person's means of expanding the separate self -- large house, money, possessions -- are unavailable, so the poor person can only expand the body.
All of this, of course, is unconscious. All the individual is aware of is a hunger, a need for something more. The fact that obese people often eat when they are not physically hungry offers a clue to what is going on. Indeed, they are hungry -- they just aren't hungry for food. They are hungry for connection. Food is the most tangible, direct confirmation of our connection to a living universe that loves us. On a primal biological level, the act of eating tells us, "I exist" and "I am loved." Indeed, food is the most basic expression of love, a token of intimacy, of bringing an outsider into the realm of self. That is why it is customary in most countries to offer food to a guest, and why it is rude to refuse it. To feed another is, in this sense, an intimate act, an opening of the sacred boundaries of self. When, as today, this intimate act has become a subject of commerce, and food a commodity, the entire food system reeks of obscenity. Ha ha, now it seems that I am likening restaurants to brothels and chefs to prostitutes! I don't want to demean either of these ancient professions, so let me just say that to offer either sex or food casually and carelessly is an affront to the divine Giver of these sacred gifts. Speaking now only of chefs, and leaving the reader to draw whatever other conclusions he or she likes, I will observe that to offer this sacred gift without love -- that is, without care, attention, and artistry -- feels sordid and emptying. That is why I steer away from, ahem, restaurants that seem motivated primarily by profit, that want to merely gain off my deep biological and emotional needs. Some things are too sacred to sell, whether for money or for some intangible emotional currency. One feels used. That is not to say a restaurant should not charge money, nor that we should not gain emotional highs or self-esteem from sex -- it is just that these should be secondary. The same is true of anything we give to the world. When it becomes "for the money" we cease being artists.
The need for connection is intertwined with the need for love, since it is love that opens the boundaries of the separate self to let in a bit more of the world. When I love someone, his or her self-interest becomes my own. That is why the environmental movement signifies such a profound shift in human consciousness. Separate too long in the world of the Machine, we are falling back in love with the world.
Consigned by modern civilization to a tiny, isolated self, we suffer from a powerful unmet need for love and connection. To meet this need is more important than life itself. People will do almost anything to meet it. It is time to release our condemnation of the people with bloated bodies, or bloated bank accounts, houses, egos, or other enlargements of the separate self. They are merely trying to meet their most beautiful needs. They are trying to connect and find love, in whatever tiny way is available at the end of the Age of the Machine. As I described in the Miracle of Self-creation essays, it is foolish and futile to try to fight the expression of these needs, whether in ourselves or others. If food is the only way someone has to show herself love, would you impose a diet on her and take away even that scrap of self-love? No, it is much better to do what you can to meet the need directly. The same is true for all those greedy people in SUVs, or whoever else happens to be the favorite target of our derogation. Meet the need -- the need for love and connection -- directly. It is easy if you see the true source of the behavior. It is easy to see people with eyes of love, if you know that they are simply trying to meet their beautiful needs.
Specifically, this might mean encouraging and validating the very behavior that appears to be the cause of the trouble. To do what you already do (and cannot stop doing) without guilt magnifies its effect as self-love, and breaks the pattern of indulgence followed by self-blame followed by more indulgence to comfort the blamed self. I describe these dynamics and how to undo them in more depth in my short book, Transformational Weight Loss (still in beta edition). Essentially, conventional restrictive approaches to dieting (which fail 98% of the time) are based on the idea that the problem is too much: too much food, too much greed, too selfish, too indulgent, too lazy, too weak. In fact, the problem is one of lack. A diet imposes more lack, and ultimately intensifies the driving unmet needs.
Obesity is usually taken as a symptom of excess, but in fact the reverse is true. Obesity, and the other enlargements I have mentioned, are actually symptoms of the most profound destitution ever to visit the human race. The bloated lifestyles of the American rich harbor an inner poverty exactly equal to the Third World poverty that enables those lifestyles. Half the world cannot get enough to eat, and the other half cannot get enough no matter how much they eat. It is a complete tapestry, perfect and horrifying.
Thankfully, this tapestry is unraveling today. The world built upon the separate self is collapsing around us, as we see in the converging crises of money, energy, health, education, politics, and environment. Each crisis contains the rest. For example, it is no accident that the cutoff of our true selves is a great business opportunity: we must buy the substitutes for the missing parts of the connected self. The same Separation that is at the root of obesity is also at the root of global economic exploitation, as it as at the root of the current wave of thinly-disguised fascism. Here is a passage from The Ascent of Humanity:
People who are firmly ensconced in a local, kinship-based community are less susceptible to consumerism and fascism alike, because both base their appeal on a need for self-identity. Therefore, to introduce consumerism to a previously isolated culture it is first necessary to destroy its sense of identity. Here's how: Disrupt its networks of reciprocity by introducing consumer items from the outside. Erode its self-esteem with glamorous images of the West. Demean its mythologies through missionary work and scientific education. Dismantle its traditional ways of transmitting local knowledge by introducing schooling with outside curricula. Destroy its language by providing that schooling in English or another national or world language. Truncate its ties to the land by importing cheap food to make local agriculture uneconomic. Then you will have created a people hungry for the right sneaker.
I hope it is clear now how obesity and its consumerist equivalents are a symptom of poverty, not wealth. In essence, we have been robbed of something so fundamental to our humanness that we are left ever hungry. We live with an ache than can never be assuaged, a hole that can never be filled. So of course we eat and we buy, spending the proceeds from the sale of our very being. We have lost our selves, and received mere money in return, if even that. And the robbery continues apace, and, driven by the relentless engine of an interest-based money system, must proceed until there is nothing left to sell. This is the point of utter destitution we are fast approaching today. As with nature's goodness and beauty, as with our cultural heritage, as with our human relationships, our health too we have pawned away. The epidemics of our time show the extent of our pauperdom.
The point of utter destitution is also the point of turning, the turning of the age. We can no longer endure the pain of separation. We are beginning to experience the softening and expansion of the separate self. Many readers I am sure have been through this process themselves, probably more than once: trying to hold everything together with increasing control, and eventually giving up, letting the world in, softening and expanding, reclaiming lost connections through the medium of love. Is it too much to say, as multiple crises reach their fulfillment and plunge masses of people through this process all at once, that we are entering an Age of Love?
Necessarily, I have written of the obesity epidemic in a very general way, but of course each person is separate in a unique way. Each of us is missing different parts of our true connected selves. Therefore, the path to healing is unique as well. The overeater is hungry for something that food can never satisfy, but what? The answer is individual, but healing will usual involve loving yourself (and therefore something outside yourself) in a way you have not before. The true self must expand for the separate self to shrink. The same is true whether your inflation is corporeal or via some other type of consumption. Forceful attempts to conquer the ego are therefore no more successful than going on a diet. I do not want my description of the plunder of the self to evoke more fear, more control, more desire to "fight evil". The horror of our circumstances is very real, but its end is nigh. Please do not misunderstand me to be advocating inaction. There is action that is not fighting. That time is nearly over. The action to take now comes from remembering and reminding; from that, powerful, courageous actions spring unstoppably. The love that comes with the crumbling of the separate self is not a mere sentiment.
A paradise on earth is available right now, easily, closer than close. It is a shift of perception away. The epidemics of our time show us that, too. A prodigious energy will be freed when we end the War against the Self encoded in autoimmunity. A magnificent abundance will become available when we stop consuming things we don't need in compensation for the things we do. And these shifts together come as a result of the pain of the diseases themselves, and of the other ills of our age. The illness is the medicine. The true nature of the connected self, love, is beckoning in every realm. It is your true nature and it is mine. Let us relax into it.
Image by Eddi07, courtesy of Creative Commons License