Sunday, July 27, 2014

Out of Context

I recently had the experience of coming down with strep throat for the second time in two months. After reading that some people get recurring strep due contracting to an antibiotic resistant strain of the bacteria, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of going to the doctor, I self-medicated using essential oils. I gargled hourly with oregano and lemon and made another concoction that I took on a regular basis as well. I was admittedly skeptical of the oils, and would have gone to a doctor if I hadn't experienced relief. I had only ever used the oils for softer applications like mood regulation or blister healing, thinking that at the very least, they smell good and can't hurt me. But this was the first time I had tried them for something where it would be obvious whether they had been effective or not.

I was fairly amazed by the results of my experiment. (And just in case you're wondering, I do not sell these oils so this is not a commercial). They cured my strep completely within 48 hours, to the point where I was able to go for an easy run. Not only did they cure me faster than antibiotics had, but they also relieved my symptoms much more effectively in the meantime. I would feel immediate relief each time I used them.

I like the concept of using the oils. They are super concentrated extractions of naturally occurring plant oils. Many of the medications we commonly use are plant derived. For example, salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, was first extracted from the bark of a willow tree. People used to make tea from the bark because they found it reduced fever. Then chemists eventually isolated the active ingredient and devised more efficient ways of synthesizing it and it became a pharmaceutical product. Western medicine is very fond of extracting the chemical compounds that have been proven to be clinically effective in treating illness, and using them out of context of the compounds with which they naturally occur. There is a certain genius to this process, a genius that has extended our lifespans tremendously. But there is also a certain hubris inherent in this approach which ignores the fact that many of the compounds co-occuring with those we have isolated and tested may serve a supporting role to the active compound, or may be active themselves in ways we have not yet thought to test. Nature may not have been mistaken in failing to sprout Tylenol pills on trees.

The Western mind is full of this bias-- the bias of isolating and emphasizing that which we have proven to be effective, while shearing it of its natural context. Another example that springs readily to mind is the way that we have developed exercise machinery that targets a specific muscle or group of muscles. When you lift free weights, your engage a wide range of supporting muscles which, though they are not the target of your specific strength training, nevertheless become strong and toned. Weight machines, on the other hand, may reduce the risk of injury inherent in poor form, but they do so at the expense of all of those supporting muscles.

The same bias is perhaps nowhere more evident than in our public policy. Bush's deeply flawed "No Child Left Behind" policy attempts to apply this way of thinking to the education of children, supposing
that teaching methods are something that can be extracted from the classroom and proven through standardized testing. The policy overlooks the rich milieu of the classroom and the extremely complicated set of variables that determines what a child will score on a test on a given day. It is not a teaching method alone that predicts this result.

The Scientific Method is an amazing tool that has yielded a wealth of verifiable knowledge which has made all of our lives easier and better. When properly understood and applied, it also encourages a deep humility, for it forces its adherents to admit continually what they do not know. This is a limited type of humility, however. Wisdom requires something more than simply admitting what we have failed to verify by subjecting our intuitions to rigorous scrutiny. It requires recognition that the manner in which some things have naturally occurred or organically developed have an internal coherence that defies our splitting it up and studying the parts. It requires the admission that we do not know how such things came into being. It is a humility that allows us to recognize the bounty of what we have inherited as denizens of the earth rather than simply shaking our heads at what we have failed, as yet, to create.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Priory

Pacing the perimeter of crumbling stone,
I see the priory distilled
Down to the bones of its bare form--
All the prayers of its foundation
Now relinquished to the earth,
Along with stone upon stone,
Borrowed and returned.

We scour the earth to find such clues.
The older they are, the more we intuit
That they are our future--
Our quiet acceptance
Of the knowledge we inherit
That our end is our beginning,
Even though we often fear it.