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Philosophical Thoughts on Illness

by Lee Dennis, ND

Posted: February 7, 2017

Why do we get sick? This is probably a question that has crossed most of your minds at some point. If it hasn't, well then, you're welcome, because now it has. Similar to a previous post on stress, this discussion is as much philosophical in nature as it is scientific - though we could certainly delve into the science of it. We can point at microbes (if you have a really small finger and a microscope), poor diets, stress, environmental pollutants and toxins, oxidation, telomeres and on and on. But when we get right down to it, why does any of that occur?

What is the true purpose of a virus, such as influenza, that infects our respiratory tract, damages our cells, promotes inflammation, replicates itself and spreads on to another person? What is the purpose of getting sick? It's not necessarily an easy question to answer. Scientifically, we can look at this from the perspective of evolution, which fits nicely with the previously mentioned article discussing stress.

As discussed in that prior post, stress can be thought of as a means to growth. I used the analogy of an astronaut whose bones and muscles weaken without the continual stress of gravity to maintain their strength. One could think of illness in a similar manner. It is a stress that can strengthen us on an individual level. After all, microbes "train" our immune system and, in a way, strengthen it with every illness. But, we can also think of this from the species level...at least in the case of microbes. Evolution is survival of the fittest, right? So from the species perspective, the weak are killed off by viruses and microbes, leaving the strong to continue the species and, in theory, creating a stronger progeny and therefore a stronger species overall. It may sound harsh, but it's true. Though, please don't take this as my condoning eugenics or other similar unethical beliefs or practices. This is a philosophical discussion, not an ethical one. Unfortunately, nature rarely contemplates ethical dilemmas.

Of course, on the other hand, viruses (questionably) and bacteria are living organisms. It just so happens that their evolved means of survival and growth is to sometimes use our body, or the body of other organisms in some way. Viruses use our cells to reproduce and grow in number and then to spread to another where they can do the same. Every living creature needs some way to promote the growth of its species. "Be fruitful and multiply", someone said. Bacteria, in cases of infection, will use our body for nutrients and growth as would a parasite. Is this so different from how we use the Earth for nutrients and growth or other plants and animals?

Speaking of the Earth, from an even larger perspective illness may play a different role. There are those who believe the Earth to be a living organism unto itself. Many native populations believed in nature spirits and the Earth, the land, as a living organism. While this may seem absurd to some, it puts things into a perspective from which we can see illness and destruction as a balancing act. The Earth may use illness and natural disasters to reduce overpopulation of certain species that could lead to an imbalance in ecosystems and food chains which thereby threaten the existence of many other species or the health of the Earth itself. As an analogy, this might be similar to fighting cancer in the human body - an uncontrolled growth of cells. If each individual member of a species is to the Earth as a cell is to the body and each species is as a tissue (collection of specific cells), we can see how this analogy might make sense. Perhaps, then, microbes are part of the immune system of the Earth?

Up until now, I've mainly been speaking of acute illnesses caused in large part by viruses and bacteria. But currently in medicine, many of our more problematic diseases are chronic in nature and not necessarily related to microbes. I'm speaking, of course, of the major chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer as well as other chronic illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease and so on. These are diseases of a different nature, most often with multi-factorial causes. There is usually a genetic component involved that is triggered by various environmental factors. The environmental factor in one person could be diet, while in another it might be exposure to mercury, but oftentimes, it's a combination of a number of these types of factors.

It is the multi-factorial nature of chronic diseases that make them so difficult to address. Not only are there many causes, but the cause(s) from one person to another could vary tremendously. Finding those causes, at times, can be difficult. Eliminating them before they do damage can be even more difficult - especially in a paradigm that fails to recognize or even acknowledge possibilities beyond those that have already been widely accepted. It can be difficult to discover the truth if we're not open to possibilities heretofore left unconsidered. But, I digress.

Many of these contributing factors really aren't that mysterious and therefore don't lend themselves well to the philosophical nature of this discussion. It is pretty well established that a poor diet can have an enormous influence on the development of various diseases, though we can debate what diet or diets are best. Though some in mainstream medicine may not agree, there is little question among naturopaths and other holistic practitioners about the influence of environmental toxins on chronic disease. And so on and so on with a number of other factors such as stress, physical activity, etc. In simple terms, this is because these lifestyle habits are misaligned with our current state of genetic adaptation (i.e. the change in our environment has outpaced our ability to adapt). This leads to disease.

I'd like to take this conversation to a deeper or different level, however - beyond the somewhat obvious influences on disease. Some of this may seemingly get into the realm of metaphysics, but I'd like to keep everyone on board, so I'll try to keep this as down-to-earth as possible. How many of you have known someone that has developed a debilitating chronic disease apparently out of nowhere? They eat well. They exercise. They have a good job. They have a happy family & plenty of friends. All the factors for good health appear to be in place. Everything looks right, but, for some reason, they still get sick. Just bad genetics, right? Maybe, but maybe not.

Sometimes, it seems like there's more to what's going on. A deeper meaning. Or, from a different perspective, a lack of meaning. What I'm getting at here is not the misalignment of lifestyle habits with our current state of genetic adaptation, as mentioned above, but rather a misalignment of our learned or external truth with our personal truth. A misalignment of our worldview with our "soul's" view. Or, in similar terms to that used by medical intuitive Christel Nani - a misalignment of our tribal beliefs with our spiritual nature. All of these phrasings are hinting at a similar concept. Something within is not aligning with the external world. We're not listening to our inner voice - we're not following our heart.

In some spiritual schools of thought, it is said that disease starts in the non-physical body. Depending on your beliefs, this could mean the soul, the astral body, the mind, the aura, something totally different or some combination thereof. The takeaway being, disease doesn't always start in the physical body. Sometimes, the root lies elsewhere.

What this essentially means, is a disconnection from one's inner truth. As with any stress on the body, this disconnection leads to real physical change. The mind and the body are intrinsically and inextricably connected. While this may seem very unscientific, it actually is not. There is plenty of science to corroborate the connection and level of influence between the mind and body.

This is where disease takes on more meaning and the causality is less clear. Some might say this is a wake up call, in a sense. Often that is what illness is. A moment of reflection and an opportunity. We could continue down this philosophical rabbit hole into even deeper questions that could connect to this - meaning of life, nature of reality and such. I'll let you do that on your own though. Although this next statement may seem contradictory to the entire article - our focus is far too often on disease, on preventing disease and denying the reality of death, rather than focusing on living a meaningful life. That is the wake up call. A wake up call to live a life that is meaningful to you, not to what your tribe tells you is meaningful. Listen to that inner voice and follow your heart. That is your truth.





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