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On parasites, torture, and the Creator (part 2)

2010 September 21

In my last entry, I thought about human suffering and joy as my primary motivators, and how adequate medical care for the most deprived people may prevent and relieve not only physical illness, but—an arguably even more compelling outcome—can be, I think, reasonably hoped to prevent widespread physical and psychological violence as well. This year I expect to come face to face with victims of all of these issues.

I don’t have to look to faraway Burundi for examples of this, though. As I painfully discovered only a few years ago, my own country is heir to a history of genocide within living memory, which—along with the rest of the colonial enterprise—has left many First Nations communities stripped of the accumulated social capital of millennia: child-rearing skills, self-sufficiency, community pride, and spiritual meaning, to name a few. My other two most recent reads, An Error in Judgment (Dara Culhane Speck, 1987) and Tsawalk (Umeek aka E. Richard Atleo, 2004), have provided much of my education so far.

The former is an account of a conflict over control of health care delivery between the ‘Namgis First Nations community in Alert Bay, the White community in Alert Bay, and the Canadian health care system, triggered by an unnecessary death as the culmination of a long history of neglect and substandard care; this account, by a sociologist who was living with the ‘Namgis at the time, places this story clearly within the invaluable context of a 150-year history of racist subjugation and European colonial arrogance. This book is a history lesson I wish they would teach in every Canadian high school: I never knew the first thing about these matters until the unacceptably-advanced age of 25.

(I don’t resent much, but I resent that this was left out of my basic education. History classes were decidedly Eurocentric and taught me about everything from ancient Egypt and Rome and Greece to World War II, and my Canadian history similarly made no mention of mistreatment of Aboriginals, and didn’t get much further than Confederation. I did hear a little about the internment of Japanese at some point, but that was the only example I can remember of “something we did wrong” since colonization. As far as I knew by the time I finished high school, Aboriginals mostly died—inevitably—of imported smallpox while Europeans settled their land and left them in reservations, and that was the whole story.)

Tsawalk, whose author is a Nuu-chah-nulth hereditary chief, is an illumination, for Western audiences, of the Nuu-chah-nulth philosophical worldview, as illustrated by a series of personal and mythical stories. It was given to me by the medical health officer responsible for northern Vancouver Island, which includes Umeek’s homeland, after I spent two weeks exploring the area’s formal public health system under her supervision.

It is a remarkable book. I struggled through the introduction and conclusion, which in addition to outlining the worldview being presented, included a substantial amount of unconvincing straw-man criticisms of Western scientific principles*. But then, as I read the brief stories, followed by Umeek’s extensive and masterful contextualizing and unpacking of the beliefs they represent, I started to feel for the first time in my life that I was gaining some real understanding of what so many people love about religion.

I’ve come to my present set of values through a combination of mostly-informal social learning (through parents, school, media, etc), and my own fairly clumsy and haphazard explicit consideration of role models, experiences, and ideas. I haven’t formulated a cohesive picture, and don’t really have an easy way to remember what I think, if that makes sense.

Umeek’s book gave me my first example of what that might look like. He tells a handful of the stories that he heard growing up, that are central to his culture; each seems quite simple, and occupies perhaps a page or so. (They might be called myths or fables, as they cover such material as the stealing of the sun from the spiritual realm to the physical realm by Raven, but it seems disrespectful to use such language because the Nuu-chah-nulth, by Umeek’s account, take them as fact.) He then proceeds to unpack for us the rich depth of wisdom and teaching embedded in and implied by these stories, including central values like humility, generosity, respect for the environment, the importance of family and community, the acceptance of pain and suffering as natural, and so on. He describes his traditional community as living embodiments of these admirable values, and boy does ever it sound nice. This is much closer to the kind of world I’d like to see than the world we have.

The unifying theme is the idea of a single Creator from which deeply interrelated but separate physical and spiritual realms flow, whose original design is discovered through trial and error (the values above having been discovered to be effective ways of meeting one’s needs and those of one’s community), and teachings pass continuously from one generation to the next. All things are one (heshook ish tsawalk), so that (for example) other species are the same as humans, but in a different skin, and deserve equivalent respect. One cannot perturb one part of a system without influencing all the rest of it — physical and mental health, spiritual and material wealth, of individuals and societies — all are linked.

So, while I could easily quibble with some of the details and specific arguments in the book, I’d be missing the point. I feel I gained an enormous amount of insight into (and therefore respect for**) the worldview of a very different culture, and by proxy the entire (previously foreign) phenomenon of spirituality as an important, even central part of people’s lives.

So when I met with torture victims this month, and I saw how much resilience some of them had derived from their spirituality — such as the man from Eritrea who I met just yesterday, who was jailed and beaten for his affiliation with the Pentecostal church, and looked nevertheless to be at peace with the world — I felt able to understand and support them a little more for this new understanding.

*I’ll be the first to criticize Western arrogance enabled by misinterpreted scientific findings, but I’ll be a pure rational empiricist to my deathbed. I am convinced that these principles, if used well, are the best possible basis for a compassionate worldview, and are perfectly compatible with—indeed, inclusive of—the many positive values that are historically the domain of religion. Science—by which I mean nothing more than learning through observation, and keeping vigilant of human fallibility in this process—includes, in principle, the study of religion, literature, music, morality, belief, theatre, etc., from which we can no doubt learn a great deal about human nature. I think achieving a deep understanding of humanity stands to enhance, not diminish, collective well-being. Idealist that I am, I think science should be able to find a way to say your spiritual vision is “just in your head” without saying you’re crazy and without saying they’re worthless. But that’s a topic for another post; or, better yet, another author. I’m sure someone in history (Bertrand Russell, I’m looking at you) might have explained all this better than I can.

**Personal bias confession: I suspect I would not have been as open-minded if I’d approached a book on Christian spirituality. It’s the most powerful religion where I grew up, and for me it’s usually been most notable for its negative associations: sexism, homophobia, sex-negativity, denial of evolution, antagonism towards scientific thinking in general. I’d come to recognize at least the great value of the community that religion often provides, and the existential comfort of God’s plan in the face of suffering, but I still probably have an unfair view of it. Canada’s First Nations, on the other hand, are powerless and mistreated, so I was probably more readily able to listen and sympathize and give the benefit of the doubt. I’m not trying to justify these biases, but we all have biases, so I’m trying to at least expose mine. And I think that by learning about the spirituality of one culture, I feel that I have a much better understanding (and appreciation!) of spirituality in general, including Christian spirituality.

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