Sunday, March 14, 2010

New Age B.S.

I heard the worst argument against health care reform yesterday that I think I've ever heard. I was with a friend having breakfast, and she said that she was not a fan of "being forced to have insurance." We used to work together at a university, and she still works there, so I said, "You have insurance."

"I know," she said, "but I'm a spiritual being having a physical experience. If I get sick, I've created that, so I should be able to fix it. Going to the doctor just introduces illness into people's minds, so I don't want to pay for hypochondriacs."

"What if you get in a car accident and break a bone," I asked. "Should you be able to heal that too?"

There was a little more than that, but it was clearly making us both angry so she changed the subject. I was really angry, because we had just been talking about my sister, who had preeclampsia -- if she hadn't gotten immediate medical attention, she and my nephew would have died. I also have many other relatives who have serious health problems. I'm going to have a thyroid ultrasound tomorrow, because even though I feel fine, several blood tests have shown that my body is attacking my thyroid. Apparently none of us are enlightened enough to keep ourselves healthy.

I have some New Age leanings myself. I make Treasure Maps to help me clarify my goals. I have learned to trust my intuitions, because there have been plenty of times when I've "known" something was going to happen and then it came to pass. I'm the kind of person who thinks about someone right before they call. A reading from a psychic actually helped convince me to apply to the job I have right now. But I also think those things can just slightly tip the scales in the direction they were going anyway. I don't believe, contrary to what "The Secret" suggested, that I can get myself a brand-new car just by visualizing myself driving it. There also has to be reasonable action on my part to make good things happen.

I do believe that a negative attitude can bring bad things into people's lives, but more because of how that attitude makes them act than any mystical power that attitude has -- if they feel like they are doomed to ill health, they might not take the steps they can make to keep themselves healthy. If you watch "The Biggest Loser," most of the contestants had convinced themselves they would die young, so they smoked and drank heavily on top of their terrible food and exercise habits.

For most of them, their workup with Dr. H seemed to be the first checkup they had in years, so I don't think it was their excessive doctor visits that had brought bad health into their lives.

I do agree in some ways that the medical system we have is sometimes making us sicker rather than keeping us healthy. Our heavy reliance on prescription medications, for example, is probably bad for us as a society, not only because drugs have side effects, but because taking pills has become our first line of defense, when there are lifestyle interventions that should be a part of the treatment of most diseases. Antibiotics have saved lives but they have also created even more deadly bacteria that are resistant to drugs. Serious surgeries, like heart bypass, have gone from rare to commonplace, and it's hard not to wonder if they're being overused.

At the same time, I think it's a pretty callous thing to suggest that people shouldn't have access to medical care when they're genuinely sick. I have faith in the body's ability to heal itself from some conditions, but I see a doctor when I'm not feeling well. This seems like the sane thing to do.

My biggest resistance to the New Age belief system is not that it's weird -- I'm OK with being weird. It's that it can promote an attitude like my friend expressed, that you create everything bad that happens to you, from a sprained ankle to cancer. If you are healthy, it must be because you are more "centered" than people who are sick. But if you take that idea to its logical extreme, you are left feeling horrified. We live in a world where people are living in the midst of terrible wars, famine, and crushing poverty. Did they create this with their negativity? Are we updating the mentality that a rape victim "asked for it" by her clothing and behavior with the idea that she brought the attack into her life because she believed she deserved it? An article about Oprah and "The Secret" asked how such a belief system could be promoted in light of what happened to people at Auschwitz. And it's a really, really good question. It seems like a philosophy like this stems from a deep need to feel in control, added to unacknowledged fear and selfishness. When New Age vagueness intersects with a materialistic "the world is my catalogue" ethic, we become more focused on what we want than what we have to give.

Why not flip this from a "people deserve the bad things they get" to "doing good brings good." If I am prosperous, and I really believe that a positive attitude will bring good things into my life, shouldn't I be happy to give some of what I have to others in the firm belief that the abundant universe will continue to provide for me, especially when I have shown my own generosity? Shouldn't I have compassion for people going through difficult times, because I know that when I have had hard times, other people have helped and cared for me? Maybe I should recognize everything I have as an undeserved gift, and give even to people I might not feel deserve help.

That would be a real New Age.


  1. This is exactly the problem I have with a lot of non-empirically based belief systems: that there is this constant division between the US (those who have received certain "blessings") and the THEM (who must somehow be bad because they're suffering).

    It only takes a second... an accident... a trigger for a biological condition... a germ... to turn an "US" into a "THEM". It's not a case of someone being inherently better, of being closer to God, of being more in tune with the Universe. In many cases it's genetics and blind chance.

    While I think a lot of times people who "have" like to feel superior as a result and like to think that all they have is a result of their hard work and right living, in many cases it's more complex than that, and as a society we need to start rejecting that mindset and remind people that "there but for the grace of god..."

  2. Thank you for your post and Fab Kate for her comment! This is exactly what bothers me about that sort of thinking. Those who are privileged and fortunate are allowed to blame the less fortunate for their own situation. Never mind being born into a world of poverty or racism - it's your own damned fault. That is exactly the viewpoint that allows and condones slavery! Pretty much every slaveholding society has rationalized it by believing that the enslaved people were somehow lesser, that they were in their proper station.

    I thought we were supposed to have rid ourselves of that kind of belief sometime after the Dark Ages.

    I believe as you do that attitude does affect our lives - it causes us to see things a certain way and thus to act a certain way. But that's only part of the story.

  3. It's a surprisingly similar argument to the one that the far right uses to justify free market capitalism, i.e. that those homeless and poor and oppressed people have it coming to them because they're not willing to work as hard as we do. Isn't it interesting that the New Age belief system and the Conservative (not necessarily Christian, although there's a great deal of overlap there) belief system end up sounding so similar?

    In response to Fab Kate, I say that empirical is all well and good, but an empirical system always has its blind spots. Actually, ANY system has its blind spots. But when doctors 500 years ago diagnosed patients as "melancholic, with a trace of hysteria," they thought they were being scientific. A few hundred years and a couple good antibiotics later, and we no longer believe than an imbalance in humours can produce sickness and frailty. I think it's foolhardy, then, to assume that our modern scientific advances tell us all we need to know about sickness and disease, especially considering how much in the human body is still a mystery to us.

    And who's to say that attitudes, environments, energies don't affect our health? Maybe they do, and we just haven't figured it out empirically (yet).


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07