Monday, December 8, 2014

The Trouble With Normal

On my way to class yesterday, I saw the police breaking up a temporary homeless camp just outside the college.

In my classes, there are students who are underslept because they are working too many hours to try to pay their tuition, and students who are going hungry because there are not enough decent paying jobs and Victoria is an expensive city.

Economists tell us this is "the new normal" -- a phrase I have hated since the first time I heard it used by the army when they were telling families about the changes they could expect to see in their loved ones returning from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury   As humans, we have the capacity to normalize a lot of things.  But, as Bruce Cockburn says, "The trouble with normal is it always gets worse."

We have normalized police harassment of Black men on the street to the point where ostensibly serious journalists and politicians are getting way with blaming Eric Garner for his own death, saying that he should have known better than to ask the police not to arrest him or to take their hands off of him.   We have normalized the glorified jail cells in schools that children -- most of them people of color -- are locked up in when they fail to maintain a performance of neurotypicality.  We have normalized the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women.   We have normalized rape culture.  We have normalized violence against Trans* people.  We have normalized the Oil Sands.  We have normalized twenty three years of war in Iraq.

To be sure, many of us don't approve of these atrocities.  But too many of us never give any of these realities a second thought as we go though our days unless they show up in the headlines or in our facebook feeds or touch the life of someone we know.

But when I show up in clinic, no matter who is sitting across from me, I see these realities etched in the bodies and hearts of the people coming to me for help -- because what our minds rationalize our hearts absorb and our bodies experience.    To be sure there are places where the scars left are deeper and more obvious. (Though still invisible to too many in medicine.  Why is that more doctors don't make a connection between the elevated rates of hypertension in African-American men and the dangers of being a Black man walking down the street in America?)   But even people further removed from the most immediate and deadly impacts of the physical and psychological violence our culture has normalized are still living with the effects of its cultural and ecological violence.    Its no accident that we call heart disease, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression, and autoimmune disease "the diseases of civilization" -- they are the direct consequences of the physiological and emotional stress of living in a culture that depends on massive structures of organized violence for its continued existence.

 As Denise Levertov wrote decades ago in words that are still too apt:

The same war

We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,

our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it

It makes no sense to speak of healing people if we are not willing to address what is making them sick and ultimately killing them.   I tell my students all the time that my prescription for everyone who walks into our clinic is the complete transformation of this society, and that anything else we do is harm reduction -- necessary and often life saving but not curative.  And while I don't have a roadmap to guide that transformation, I can tell you one thing -- the first step is refusing to accept the cruelty and suffering around us as normal.  Because the trouble with normal is that it always gets worse.


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Kate said...

Is this a good place to bring up that old quote, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."? I feel like I've been using it a lot lately, but it keeps being true.

(The quote, for those who don't already know, is from Jiddu Krishnamurti.)