Substance over style

Usually, substance over style is a good thing… but not when you’re talking about medicinal substances and lifestyles.

Here we get into the difference between symptom relief and true healing. A symptom is the outward manifestation of a problem – a headache, for example. Many different problems might cause headaches, ranging from simple dehydration through migraines to a brain tumour. Just popping a painkiller may well provide some relief, but it won’t do anything about a brain tumour. Actually healing the tumour is a whole different proposition, and may well involve taking a hard look at one’s history and lifestyle.

A chemical substance prescribed for healing may be the same as one for symptom relief, or something completely different. True healing is much easier when symptoms are under control, so that all of one’s energy isn’t diverted into just coping with the symptoms, but symptom control is only a first step. Many are more than happy to stop at symptom control, but if the underlying problem isn’t addressed, the symptoms will just come back, and/or new ones will appear.

Hoping for quick fixes, people search for so-called ‘magic bullets’ – patentable substances that will fix people’s ailments (or reduce them to a manageable level) without requiring effort, such as lifestyle change on the individual’s part or (gasp!) structural change on society’s part. That might work for symptom relief, but it won’t do for true healing.

It’s a nice fantasy. But complex systems rarely respond to easy fixes. Illness generally has environmentally-related components. You may have a congenital heart defect, but there are things you can do to make it impact your life as little as possible. But people don’t want to change their lifestyles, because it’s hard. Most don’t fix anything in their lives until they feel they have no choice.

In my experience, people who are sufficiently motivated will do pretty much anything within their power to overcome life-limiting conditions. If they aren’t sufficiently motivated, they won’t, end of story. (Note: within their power is key here. Society has set it up so that anyone with less money has less access to quality interventions, even in countries with nationalised health care.) They will take nasty medications, let their bodies be roasted with radiation, take up boring exercise routines, if they feel they have little or no alternative.

And this is key. No substance, natural or artificial, approved by society or legally prohibited, will provide a complete cure in the absence of other change. Some folks think that medication they get from Big Pharmaceutical Companies is inherently evil, but that natural plant medicines are sacred and that their inherent magical powers will compensate for unhealthy habits. Some of them can to a greater or lesser extent, but medicines (of all types) should be viewed as catalysts for healing, not the healing itself. Adopting healthier lifestyle patterns is also catalytic, but not the whole story.

Whenever I’m presented with an either-or choice, I get suspicious. There’s a philosophical concept known as the False Dichotomy. This happens when two choices are presented as both mutually exclusive and the only options available, when there are in fact other alternatives or the two choices overlap somehow. Medicinal substance vs. lifestyle change is a false dichotomy – they’re two parts of a whole when it comes to treating illness.

The same can be said for many “opposing” concepts, like science vs. spirituality, nature vs. nurture, safety vs. freedom, etc. To my mind, when these ideas are presented as irreconcilable, it means that making them work together is complicated and difficult. That’s not the same as impossible.

Reductionist science has made great inroads towards our understanding of the natural world, and has allowed us to create any number of semi-artificial ones. It’s the best set of tools we have for dealing with simple mechanical systems. When it comes to complexity, however, we need new equipment. When more people are healed and symptom-free, they’ll be in a much better position to create it.

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