Los Angeles, California (Spring 2016)
|“We need a new heart at the heart of the system, one that is not cold and congested, a heart that is open and compassionate.”|
Diseases work insidiously, hiding out in hard-to-see places. A badly compromised body often looks normal on the outside, especially if the illness is concentrated in one area. Some systems and organs continue to function perfectly while another organ or system fails. We don’t know disease is lurking in our genes or bowels or lungs until we go looking for it, screening and testing for it, or until the disease finally presents itself externally.
This is why internal illnesses seem to come on suddenly and with terrifying force. When a previously undetected malady manifests itself in the form of a correlative symptom—dry cough, bloody stool, shortness of breath—it is easy to feel that the disease has just now appeared, just now become a part of our body and our life. But some form of the disease has been inside us, part of us, for much longer than since first diagnosis. We “have” cancer before we are diagnosed with cancer. If not for a tell-tale symptom to ring the medical alarms, to expose the presence of an unwanted interloper in an otherwise healthy organism, the disease destroys the host before the host can fight back. The symptom is our reprieve.
Imagine yourself fit, strong and vital, feeling altogether hale—except for a slow-growing cyst on the inside of your left elbow. You run half-marathons; you are able to digest lentils; you think clearly and act righteously. Everything is splendid—except for the fibrous mass on your arm, last week a pea, now a grape.
You tell yourself, I’m fine. I feel great. It will go away.
It does not go away.
Some mornings you rub your fingers over the lump and you could swear it has gotten smaller. But at the end of the week, the grape is more like a golf ball. Attention must be paid. Your body is trying to tell you something.
Your body is telling you there is something wrong, some flaw in the machine that needs to be addressed or the machine will suffer. The disease is announcing itself, asserting itself. This is the moment when a reasonable person tries to fix the problem.
Today in America, and almost everywhere else, the symptoms are present. They have been externalized. The symptoms are expressing themselves now like oozing pus, a smelly excrescence of foul origins. Our body is dying.
The living organism that is us – our country, our society, our civilization, our planet – is diseased.
I am diseased. You are diseased. We all have a terrible sickness.
Our collective illness, our societal decay, is no longer hidden. The malefactors present themselves like that slow-growing cyst on your elbow, the one we all prefer to ignore. Certain functions of the whole organism are working marvelously and appear to be as salubrious as ever. I’m fine. It will go away. But when you visit Skid Row in Los Angeles, or a freeway underpass in San Diego, or the sidewalks and bus stops of most American cities, when you do not ignore the tumor, you know that We, the Collective Being, are profoundly ill.
I used to have a habit, like most people, of averting my gaze whenever I encountered a homeless person, a beggar, a sign-holder. With ostrich-like logic, I could make the problem disappear by not acknowledging, not engaging. For the past year, I challenged myself to listen to the homeless, to look my fellow humans in the eye, to really see them, to really listen. To temporarily make the invisible visible.
What I heard almost constantly was a dissonant chorus of what are euphemistically called “mental problems.” Mental illnesses. A large percentage of people living on the street are victims of physical and sexual abuse; many of them have harmful addictions; and many suffer from dramatic bi-polarity. I am not sure I had met a genuine paranoid schizophrenic before I started talking with homeless people. Now, they are everywhere, and I can usually discern when someone is tuned into a frequency that only she can hear.
The amount and intensity of mental illness among the homeless population is an indication that the larger being has at least one, and maybe more than one, vital system in rapid decay. Like late-stage blood cancer, the disease now pervades almost every cell of our society. Our vascular system, our capitalist system, is sick. Our heart, our center of compassion and life-force distribution, is sick. Our brain, our control center for organizing all the other subsidiary organs, is sick.
Our “values” and our “morals,” seem OK and not at all sick, but when you take a biopsy of what is below their surface, you learn that they’re not at all OK; they are almost the precise opposite of what they appear to be, the opposite of what we really stand for, and what we truly believe. How we behave has almost nothing to do with our professed values and morals. It is a kind of mass bi-polarity.
Our society’s mental illness, the sort of comprehensive, cross-demographic mental illness that infects each of us like a virus, may be observed daily in our war-driven economy, our violent popular culture, our resistance to holistic wellness, our creation and denial of climate change, our addictions, our abuses, and the sheer number of people undergoing pharmaceutical psychiatric care. But the profound illness of the richest society in the history of civilization presents itself most vividly in urban repositories of psychological disturbances, in the improvised shantytowns and tent encampments, the cardboard-box huts and plastic tarp lean-tos erected in the shadows of gleaming new condo towers and luxury shopping malls.
First they are peas then they are grapes. And the are not going away.
Homelessness is an obvious symptom. Per our usual modus operandi, we could ignore the originating source of the disease and deal with the prevailing symptom, just as our current medical paradigm prefers. We could try old palliative operations (with historically low success rates), like building apartments and providing social services. We could try new Swiftian operations (with a lot of risk), like rounding up the homeless population en masse and converting them into high-protein pet food. Or, instead, we could deal with the root cause of our societal illness.
In that case, what we need is a transplant. The system, the one organized like a game of musical chairs shaped in a pyramid, the one that produces unfathomable wealth for a few and unimaginable poverty for most, is profoundly unwell, terminally doomed. We need a new system, a new circulatory system. We need a new heart at the heart of the system, one that is not cold and congested, a heart that is open and compassionate.
When we do not look carefully, or at all, the current system seems to work, and sometimes it seems to work wonderfully well. But there is an inherent problem. Our current organizational scheme requires every person to benefit at the cost of those lower than him on the pyramid chart. We all must profit from someone else, including workers in faraway lands we’ll never visit. We all must exploit and be exploited. What happens, though, when you get so low there’s no one below you?
What happens when you are neither a contributor nor a consumer, when you cannot participate in the game?
You are useless. You are a waste product. You are a toxin to be expelled. The digestive system, as presently designed, is working perfectly.
Right now, society is excreting its mental illness. Right now, on streets around America, pools of bile are growing, they are spreading, and eventually they will come into contact with other parts of America that appear to be quite uninfected but in fact harbor the same damaged gene, the same malignant cell.
To many observers, that internal malignancy is concentrated in the so-called 1%, billionaires who have convinced themselves they will never have enough, no matter how little is left over for everyone else. In theory, if we could simply excise these people from society, non-violently, as we would a boil on our foot, the body politic would slowly heal itself. Unfortunately, to completely remove the damaged tissue would require a kind of massive amputation that would render us quadriplegic, because the same disease carried by the 1% lies dormant in the millions and millions of Americans who would very much like to be one of the elites, who have the same impulse for greed and selfishness, but just are not as successful at cunning exploitation and deft manipulation.
For our body to be well, for our sins and our shames to be forgiven and washed clean by holy water and divine light, every one of us, each of us an individual cell, must be well. Now is the time to do a sort of self-thermography, a full-spectrum scan. Does my heart require a transplant? Does my entire circulatory system need to be replaced, or rethought? Do my actions and words match my beliefs?
And the most important question: Do I think we are one living body?
Let us heal ourselves. Let us be well. Let us all be well.
Michael Konik is the author of many books of journalism and fiction. His works has appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.