Monday, February 9, 2009

I'm off to save the world again!

Subtitle: Just Say No to Terrorist Emails

Just got an email from someone I care about deeply. You've probably read something like it, you probably read something like it at least every six months if not more.

The gist of it goes like this:
New discovery at ___! Finally ___ is starting do admit that (insert horrible way to die) can be avoided because [cite horribly truncated scientific excerpts] and [more horribly truncated scientific excerpts]. In summary - all you have to do is avoid X Y and Z ubiquitous ingredients, substances, environments, products, locations, or foods, and you'll never (recap horrible way to die, often with heart-wrenching story of the demise of someone related to the author).

My skin just crawls when I read these emails - they're so utterly offensive. I find it so interesting with alarmist and predatory messages like this, that the tone is "if you eliminate x, y and z elements from your life, you'll be perfectly healthy and live forever". It sounds great, but when will we humans ever learn to stop trying to convince ourselves that every last horrible thing that happens can be avoided if only ___? These emails exist only to twist our minds towards fear and panic - and end of story it's just plain terrorism and in the name of all that's sacred it still works. I'm dumbfounded by that. It still works. Nearly every damned time.

Since day one, when Blargh got bit by the wild boar and died in front of the tribe there was someone there to say "well I'll never die if I just avoid boars". If this were a sitcom, that observer would then die horribly by getting flung over a cliff or something. And it'd be funny because it touches on exactly the same nerve played upon by the email above. From boars, to berries, to how to pray (something still hotly contested) and now to how to control every last molecule that enters our bodies. This kind of email panders to that same childish instinct: control = ironclad safety, guaranteed.

I've known a lot of women with eating problems and body image problems. They controlled, literally, every single calorie that went into or came out of their bodies. They controlled when, they controlled how, they controlled where, they controlled everything. They did it to look "better", they did it to avoid cancer, they did it to energize their chakras, they did it for reasons I can't even begin to explain.

Every last one of them was categorically miserable. They were so unhappy. And the lesson I've learned from them, and from my own body, is this: My human body is not a computer. No matter how I try, I cannot ultimately control the final path my own biology takes. There is no such single ingredient that I can add or take away that will do anything more than vaguely influence one or two possible outcomes. Biology just isn't that simple. Humans just aren't that simple. Douglas Adams reminds us: Anyone who says differently is selling something.

There is a terrible, panicked psychosis gripping most first-world countries these days, and it screams at us - it begs us with bloody knuckes that if we just DO THINGS EXACTLY RIGHT that we'll be safe and fine and okay forever and ever guaranteed no matter what. No such promise exists though, never will. There is no EXACTLY RIGHT. Never has been, never will be. It's the most cruel part of the human condition that we'll never ever know if we do things perfectly exactly right. That which we hope to achieve can never come to pass. I could move to Tibet and eat green tea paste and whole grain wheat gruel for the rest of my life - and then I might still get the same breast cancer that waits for me here. I might never get breast cancer at all, or spleen cancer or retina cancer or hair cancer. Even if I eat my every last meal from the three-mile-island frozen dinner section at the dollar store.

Yes, we can avoid things that we know are bad for us like smoking and eating uranium and walking amongst lions while wearing naught but barbecue sauce (not to mention the three-mile-island frozen dinner section at the dollar store.) But there has to be a place in our hearts where we can go to think that enough is enough, and the panic is more expensive to our health than M&M's.

I agree that there are things out there which are bad for us... I really do. And I love the "please be healthy" sentiment and I do appreciate how much we need our loved ones around us. I remember all too clearly the skin troubles that I had recently - and could again experience if I re-expose myself to those allergens. It's my position though, that emails like this only serve to feed the fearful monsters within us and cause us to hold more tightly to a crystalline fantasy of glossy perfection that can never be. Never. It's my position, that the panic-mongering behind these emails is far more toxic and wicked than even a fat carton of Marlboro's could ever be.

Short version: I'll be damned if I'm going to spend the rest of my life burdened with guilt and terror over What. Might. Happen. I'll drink my milk, I'll recycle, I'll eat my chocolates and I'll continue to not smoke. I'm human, and I'll continue to be human to the best of my abilities. I'll never be the prettiest, or the slimmest, or the smartest, or even the healthiest (not by a long shot). I've finally learned that that's okay. I guess I just wish more people could figure that out too.

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