Please take a look at the next drawing.
What do you see?
Is it that for you these lines are just random patterns of shades and lights? Do you see an old person or is it a young person? Are you able to see both at the same time or none of them? Are they part of one another or are they even the same person seen through the lens of time?
Given my cultural background, when I looked at this drawing, the first thing that came to my mind was the image of a young woman, looking sideways exposing the left part of her neck. But then later, seen from another perspective, the chin of the young woman could be also the nose of an old woman. Or the left eye of the old woman could be the ear of the young woman. Let me say first that the way my life has been shaped in a predominantly patriarchal world, is making me assume that both of them are women –which clearly could be incorrect. The point I’m trying to make is that if I wasn’t paying enough attention, I would be missing completely the old person.
And that’s exactly what’s happening with the Western Syndrome: many of us who live influenced and immersed in it, are completely missing, disregarding and belittling the wisdom and power of the indigenous ways of knowing that reminds us how to deeply love and how to be connected in (comm)unity.
Bare with me to share a striking example of how I came to finally realize about “not seeing the old woman.”
For almost a year, Unitierra Califas –which am part of– has been involved in a monthly seminar, hosted through the magic of the electronland via videoconferences, where close to ~20 different different groups from all over America –from the parts of the Planet we call Argentina, Colombia, Perú, Mexico and the U.S…. and yes, America, or better, Abya Yala, is not a country but a continent ;-)– have been engaged in discussions of what we call, “Other Political Horizons: The End of Patriarchy, Capitalism, the Nation-State and Formal Democracy.” Each month the elder, Gustavo Esteva, whose love pulled all of us together, holds space to have a discussion around a particular theme. It could be from patriarchy, to a black feminist manifesto, to neoliberalism, to education, to health, to housing, to social control of technology, to food practices. In these discussions we not only share insights around the problems of the totalitarianism of corporate capitalism death machine, but also the enthusiastic nature of the beautiful world our hearts know is possible and the alternatives that have been already joyfully existing for a while.
Health or No Health
In a particular month we were digging deep in the domains of health. Or so we thought. We were given to study and reflect a few readings (one of them Ivan Illich’s analysis of the crisis of the health care system and the dangers of alternative medicine: Twelve Years After Medical Nemesis). As the different groups were sharing their collective reflections, many of us were stopped in our tracks by this insight that was reported later in our monthly summary:
“A central line of reflection opened when Valiana and Victor [two indigenous folks from the Southern and Northen parts of the Planet we call Mexico] made us see that there are no words in Maya [South] and Rarámuri[North] to refer to what we commonly call ‘health’ or ‘disease’. They said that, in any case, that condition was not an individual affair or was not related to a physical or mental state of a person: rather, they were disturbances of harmony in relationships in the community, whether between people or other living or non-living things, that could or may not manifest in the condition of any given person. The question offers very different angles of analysis, which we need to continue to explore. Among other things, it shows us the limitations of our current language, constructed and conditioned by the dominant regime. The path of emancipation will have to go through the construction of a new language.“
Let that land for a moment and, if you don’t mind, am going to read this paragraph again because it still captures me with deep amazement…
It is not that the Mayan and Tarahumara/Rarámuri peoples don’t have words for “health” or “disease”, rather, their culture have a very different worldview. Sister Valiana explained further with an example:
“When we, Mayan people, experience the death of a child –inside or outside the womb– or any other situation that is affecting the community, a ceremony is offered. In this ceremony, the whole community gathers and goes from home to home to offer Saká –which is a drink made out from corn, honey and sacred plants connected with life and fertility. The sacred beverage is offered to start healing. The community uses this word “to heal”, because something is happening there, and it is not a family or a person’s issue but it is a matter that embraces the entire community. We go from house to house to offer it. Then the ceremony continues to be held by the whole community but now the beverage is offered to the earth, to the animals and, not only to that, we Mayan People feel that there are other people taking care of the mountains, and rivers, and the winds that surrounds us. And thus, the special drink is offered to them too, because if we don’t do it, we know we are doing something wrong, we know we’ve been ungrateful with all that is.
So, if we know we are fighting among ourselves or something intense is happening, we also feel compelled to offer this drink not only to the earth, to animals, to the rocks, to the air, to the cenotes (sacred fresh water holes), but also to the things that even though we cannot see, we know we must be in harmony with. We call these energies, people who take care of us, who are always present and whom we should revere with cyclic/recurring ceremonies, otherwise, the lack of this acknowledgement will affect the entire community as well.”
What happened to me after been hit with this realization –a culture where there are no words for health, disease, and not even words for government and democracy!– was the experience of this feeling as when I saw the “old woman” for the first time in the drawing. In an insightful deep and loving conversation with our beloved Dr. Poet Sri Shamasunder –who is the cofounder of HEAL and was the midwife of using this drawing of the two women– I shared with him how I no longer can hold only the perspective of the “young woman” Western Syndrome perspective where there are words for health and disease. Now, sometimes I’m experiencing one, sometimes the other, and sometimes both “images”.
I thought I was way ahead on the learning curve to decolonize my mind, little did I know how radical and rooted in love and community many Indigenous People still are nowadays. What a humbling experience this is!
Remembering to Deeply Love and Unlearning the Ways of the Western Syndrome
Perhaps to be even clearer with this clash and coexistence of world views, let’s take the “first person in the drawing”, in the form of a question:
1. Why elder Rafael is sick with pneumonia?
and the “second person in the drawing” in this other question:
2. Why is that the community is sick with pneumonia in elder Rafael?
It seems to me, that the Western Syndrome lens is operating in the first question, as it alludes isolation and suggests that is not “my problem”. A more extreme case of Western Syndrome will even say: “He should know better and get some warm layers. Poor elder Rafael.” With a second way to acknowledge the interconnected and interdependent web of life, though, my heart feels alive, fills with love and abundant active hope and possibility. It encourages me to be engaged and acknowledges my responsibility in the matter. The wellbeing of elder Rafael is part of my wellbeing and the wellbeing of all.
What is the difference between these two questions and where do they intersect? What does it mean to have an authentic dialogue of wisdoms?
There are different ways to heal and have dialogue around it. It means we require to go beyond our conditioning of language and images. How do we keep a dialogue with people and cultures where there are no words for “health” and “disease”? What are we talking about when we talk about a disease? What does it mean when someone tells us that certain perturbations in the relationships of community could be manifested as huracanes or as pneumonia?
If elder Rafael has pneumonia the first question then is why the community got sick of pneumonia in elder Rafael. It is not that we are holding the thought that there’s a sick individual with a specific disease, rather it is the entire community who is sick in elder Rafael.
This is the world and reality, regardless if we are aware of it or not, in which we live: we are a tapestry of humanity and we are further weaved with the biosphere.
The challenge is, how can we organize an effective dialogue between these two different cultures? How can we imagine a form of social organization where these radically different views –which cannot be reduced one from the other– are in practical, concrete and continuous dialogue and are part of the forms of relationship of everyday life in all aspects?
None of these questions have a clear answer. We cannot say “because A, therefore B, here’s the concrete answer to this question.” It is more about reasons for reflection, because they are very broad issues. Continue reading