The Unseen Element
Is materialism killing us?
One of my dear friends left this earth this past week.
She was a talented artist, a loyal friend, a fierce advocate. She overcame a traumatic childhood – raised by an at-the-time undiagnosed bi-polar parent – and then struggled with illness and pain in her late twenties.
Doctors prescribed a powerful anti-depressant also used to treat unexplained nerve pain. She didn’t want to take it, because she knew many of the potential side effects were extraordinarily harmful, including suicidal ideation.
But the pain she was suffering was excruciating, and in desperation, she started taking it. Her symptoms abated, and for years she was pain-free. That was when I first met her.
It was also when my high-school-age daughter Maddie fell ill and could not function. Weeks turned into months, then a year… and every time I shared my frustration, fear, and anger at the situation, my friend always listened with a compassionate ear. She too understood what it was like to suffer and find no answers from doctors.
One day she gave Maddie a gift: a silver necklace with a tiny silver pig, complete with tiny wings on its back. She told Maddie that she had worn it during her illness to remind herself that anything is possible – including regaining health.
The necklace came to symbolize hope and faith. Maddie wore the necklace every single day: through two years of disability, the year of slow recovery and return to school, and then… she wore it on the day she was recruited to play Division I volleyball in the Pac12.
Pigs did indeed fly.
18 months ago, my friend decided she couldn’t put up with the drug’s dampening effects on her personality, and she was no longer willing to trade quality of life for pain relief. She wanted out.
The manufacturer of the drug published no guidelines to safely step down off the drug, and her doctor had no advice for her, either. No doctors do.
Why? Because the drug is so addictive, getting off it can cause severe reactions, including suicidal ideation. What doctor will take that legal risk?
I ask you to consider the cruel irony here: taking the drug can cause suicidal ideation, and getting off it can, too. I also ask: how is it possible that a drug company can legally sell a drug that addicts people and causes suicidal ideation? Really, how?
Like many others, my friend turned to Reddit for help. There, she found a forum of hundreds of fellow-sufferers who were either fully recovered from or on the journey to recovery from the drug.
As she explained it to me, the online group shares with one another a method that has worked for many: breaking apart the drug capsule and removing one grain at a time so that the dosage can be diminished as slowly as possible.
It is an arduous process, and many people report having serious reactions even as they wean themselves, grain by grain. The Reddit group members also support one another through the harrowing experience.
For my friend, as she inched closer and closer to being drug-free, her original pain returned… and then worsened, encompassing more and more of her limbs. She couldn’t sleep. She suffered from “zaps” (a sensation of electric shocks in the brain) and she spiraled lower and lower.
On January 19, my friend took her own life.
I will never know the magnitude of the pain she felt. But I know she was a survivor. A fighter. A person who never gave up. So if she couldn’t bear the pain anymore, then it must have been, literally, unbearable.
I tell you all of this because I am shattered by her death, and I am determined to honor her struggle by finding meaning in it as best I can.
If I level up from the grief and anger I feel, and try to see what’s happening on a higher plane, a picture forms. To sum it up:
Materialism has taken over our modern world, and it is killing us.
That’s a big claim, I know. And how does it relate to my friend?
The word “materialism” is most often used in its colloquial understanding, that of valuing material wealth and physical comfort. That usage of the word – the “having stuff and prioritizing it” version – is the more practical, boots-on-the-ground definition of materialism.
I could devote an entire essay to that type of materialism, and how it is creating unhappiness and destroying the planet, but there are plenty of other pieces that do an excellent job. Here’s one video I watched in 2009 that changed my relationship to stuff, forever.
But there is an overarching philosophy that is the foundation for that type of materialism: the theory that “physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter.” In other words, only physical matter exists and the spiritual world does not.
In our materialist world, a carrot is just a collection of chemical substances:
Scientists have broken the carrot down into its components as best they can. Yet all of those substances in the right proportion, shaken together, still will not produce a carrot. No one, not even the most credentialed biochemist, can identify the one thing that actually creates a carrot – the animating force, if you will.
The brilliant, materialist doctor sidesteps that rather large omission, and views carrots in a purely functional manner. How many calories are in a carrot? How much Vitamin C does it have? How much fiber?
Based on the answers to those questions, the doctor might tell you to eat more carrots, because they’re “good for you.” (That’s if you’re fortunate enough to have found a doctor who even pays attention to what you eat. Most doctors I’ve encountered have neither the interest nor the time to enter into that line of questioning.)
Illness is seen through that same materialist lens. If your blood test or CT scan or urinalysis doesn’t turn up something tangible, then you’re not sick. I can’t tell you how many dead ends Maddie and I came to within the healthcare system. Doctors had no answers for her because their toolkit was so limited by their narrow field of vision.
I don’t blame doctors for viewing illness in purely mechanical terms. First, that’s what they were taught; and second, that’s the predominant worldview. Everything is seen in mechanical terms:
weight loss = calories in, calories expended;
education = information in, grade point average out;
criminal justice = felons in, time spent, reformed citizens out;
food production = seed + dirt + pesticides + water + sunlight in, a carrot out.
This kind of reductionist thinking has also served industrialism quite well. It works perfectly with machines and any other complex system that does not live or breathe or dance or cry.
But it does not work for a human being who is suffering from depression. Think of all of the very real reasons for depression in this lifetime: traumas of every sort, at every age; loneliness; loss of employment; loss of a loved one; lack of meaningful work in the world; a struggling relationship; unexpressed emotion; physical pain… It goes on and on.
How could there be a one-size-fits-all drug that could address the variations in that?
Health is not a science, it’s an art. Just like a carrot is not just a cocktail of chemicals, it’s a miracle. There is an unseen element that is just as real as the elements our five senses perceive, and that unseen element is being actively ignored, omitted, and downright ridiculed.
Let’s call that element spirit.
In her recent essay, Dr. Naomi Wolf talks about the stigma of discussing spirit within certain circles: “Grounded postmodern intellectuals are not supposed to talk about or believe in spiritual matters — at least not in public.”
I have felt that myself. And I agree with Dr. Wolf: these times demand that we acknowledge, publicly, that our world is both material AND spiritual. You’ve probably heard French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s quote: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Why is it so important now? Because spirit is the seat of hope and faith, the source of creativity and inspiration. Spirit is what separates us from machinery and connects us to one another.
When I first met my friend, I was struck by her quiet, unwavering belief in herself. She gave everyone around her, including me, permission to dream big. What is that if not an example of the power of the unseen?
Without spirit, human beings can be controlled – just like machines can. With spirit, ahh, that’s where it gets interesting. A human being that is in touch with his or her magnificent eternal essence is, frankly, unstoppable.
Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Joan of Arc… all dangerous individuals, because their faith in that unseen element made them fearless. And a fearless human being is a free human being.
On January 19th, the day my friend died, Maddie tossed the volleyball into the air to serve. Just as she reached up to hit the ball, she felt the silver chain slide down her back. After the play finished, she and a teammate searched the gym floor.
She found the little pig, far from the chain that had held it for the past seven years. Maybe it was time for it to fly. Maybe Maddie doesn’t need it anymore.
Maybe my friend is flying free, too. I now know — I don’t think or believe it, I know — that in a world of spirit, anything is possible.