by Barbara Berkeley, MD
This week's unfathomable massacre in Newtown Connecticut and all of its recent violent predecessors started me thinking about the ways in which I believe we humans are clueless. It seems to me that our greatest liability is our inflated sense of ourselves; the perception that we somehow exist outside of the laws of nature and therefore operate by a different set of rules. It seems so incredibly naïve.
We take the fact that we are omnivorous to mean that we can eat whatever we want. We say that there is nothing wrong with a constant exposure to enormously overstimulating foods because the fact that we are rational humans makes us able to “handle it”. We act as if we do not understand the fact that overconsuming food causes illness and even death. If we grow overfat and terribly sick, we often believe that we have gotten that way because of something wrong with our metabolism rather than something wrong with our fundamental reasoning. We believe that because we are human, we should be able to eat with abandon and that there is no price for this eating, simply because we are such flexible, self-repairing organisms. But, of course, there is a price. We were never meant to swim in a sea of constantly available food, and we are drowning in it.
We take the fact that we live in an industrial society to mean that we can pollute our air and water without significant consequence. If we develop increasing levels of cancer or see dramatic shifts in climate, we can point to many other possible causes. We believe that because we are human and because our earth is such a flexible, self-repairing organism, we have no reason to fear the changes we are making to our environment. But increasingly we are coming face to face with evidence that suggests that overconsumption of fuels, toxins, pesticides and the like are threatening everything that surrounds and supports us. We are inextricably bound to everything else on the earth, but we don't like to believe it.
We take the fact that we have rational minds to mean that we can expose those minds to any kind of stimulus. Because we can separate right from wrong and real from fake, we believe that spending endless hours in the consumption of violent images---even acting out violence in increasingly realistic gaming scenarios---has no lasting effect on us. Yet people who are exposed to actual violence suffer permanent mental scars. Doesn't it seem foolish to believe that no mark is left on us by the simulated violence that is increasingly gruesome and ubiquitous, particularly if one is less mentally stable or is younger and more impressionable?
Preserving the image of ourselves as above nature allows us to indulge in all the kinds of overconsumption that produce comfort, pleasure and release. But while our range as humans makes us seem capable of almost anything, the truth is that we live in a small space of acceptability. Our range only seems to be broad. The balancing systems that restore us from deviations whether they be in sodium, sugar, body temperature, or traumatic images and events are incredible but limited. We need only exceed the body or mind's ability for rebalancing to find ourselves in a fatal spiral.
Rather than indulging the belief that we can tolerate a world that tolerates just about anything, might it not be better to take an honest look at our frailties and vulnerabilities? The human body, the human mind, the planet on which we live: these are masterworks beyond all reason. We should care for them with reverence and with an understanding of the fact that each of them has its limits. None is perfect, immutable or immune from harm. We need to take a good look at the harm we do while continuing to believe that there is always time to repair ourselves and our world.