اندوه و احیا

کتاب: سلامتی در 100 سالگی / فصل 17

اندوه و احیا

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17 - Grief and Healing

There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.

—Louis L’Amour

If one of the most important signs of an advanced civilization is the amount of unconditional love in the community, then modern Western culture may be more primitive than we normally think, while the Pygmies and the Bushmen may be leading the way. This makes it all the more a source of sorrow, then, that the Pygmies and Bushmen stand today on the edge of extinction.

And even more sadly, they are not alone. The modern world is becoming an increasingly inhospitable place for many traditional societies.

In Abkhasia, the idyllic isolation that the region long enjoyed, and that permitted the fabled health and longevity of its inhabitants to flourish, has been severely compromised in recent years, following the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Prior to 1993, Abkhasia had been part of Soviet Georgia, though with its own culture and beliefs. While many Abkhasians were living peacefully in the traditional lifestyle, others were beginning to abandon the old ways in favor of modernity and were taking an increasing interest in politics. After Georgia broke away from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Abkhasian authorities decided to pursue their wish of becoming an autonomous republic, and declared the region’s independence. Almost immediately, Georgia sent its military forces into Abkhasia in an attempt to reclaim the region. In 1993, this tragically became a devastating war in Abkhasia, resulting in more than a hundred thousand deaths while causing tremendous upheaval and destruction.

What the future will hold for Abkhasia is uncertain, but the war and related events of the past decade have grievously damaged the social and economic structure throughout the Caucasus. This is not the first time in human history that war and violence have decimated a life-affirming society, nor is it likely to be the last. I believe that those of us who are spared direct involvement in this kind of violence owe it to those who are harmed to do what we can to build a culture of peace, prosperity, and justice in the world, to lessen the likelihood that such tragic events will ever take place again.

Throughout the world today, the wisest and most long-lived cultures are having a difficult time surviving. In Okinawa, the way of life that has long produced such remarkable results for the elders is being abandoned by subsequent generations. Exposed to junk food as a result of the massive U.S. military presence, the younger residents of Okinawa have become eager consumers of fast-food burgers, soda pop, doughnuts, processed meat, and canned foods—with disastrous health consequences. And likewise in China, where the quest to emulate the American diet is leading to skyrocketing rates of obesity, cancer, and heart disease.

There are few cities left anywhere in the world today where you can walk down the street without being bombarded by advertisements promoting the sale of soft drinks. Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, KFC, Baskin-Robbins, and similar multinational corporations are rapidly setting up shop wherever people have money to spend. Worldwide, Dunkin’ Donuts now sells 6.4 million doughnuts each day (enough to circle the world twice). And as McDonald’s so proudly proclaims, the company has now sold more than one hundred billion burgers, roughly sixteen for every man, woman, and child on earth.

In some cities there are now “all you can eat by the minute” restaurants where instead of paying according to the food they eat, customers pay according to how many minutes they sit at the table. Not surprisingly, people eating at these restaurants rarely speak with one another. They are determined to eat as much as they can as quickly as possible.

It is part of the anguish of our times that a toxic food environment that causes weight gain, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes is rapidly going global, with the result that obesity and its attendant ailments are increasing today in every single nation in the world. These trends are reaching, I’m sorry to say, even into places as previously isolated and pristine as Hunza and Vilcabamba.


The Hunza valley is still witness to some of the most magnificent mountain grandeur to be seen anywhere on earth. Until only a few decades ago, the only access into the Hunza valley was a harrowing trail that was at points nothing more than rocks hammered into the side of the mountain. Sometimes in the winter the Hunza River would freeze solid and could be crossed. But at other times, to get to Hunza, people had to crawl on their hands and knees across perilous rope bridges above the river’s raging waters.

In the late 1960s, all this began to change. The government of Pakistan, wanting to be able to obtain help from China in case of a war with India, began creating a primitive road that could be traversed by specially equipped vehicles.

By 1973, when Alexander Leaf visited Hunza for National Geographic, the consequences of the road were already evident. He wrote,

In the past, the clothes they wore had all been made from the cloth they wove of the wool from their own sheep, but now they are dressed in brightly colored cotton prints from Japan. Imported tea is replacing the traditional drinks of fruit juice. Small shops are appearing in the villages as natives turn to commerce rather than agriculture for their livelihood. The old people told us repeatedly that “no one has time for relaxation and festivities any more.” The Hunzan leader lamented to Leaf,

With the road, the young people go to Pakistan for military service or employment. They return and change the traditional ways of my people. The diet is changing and health is deteriorating. There are fewer old people now.

Then, in 1979, this high mountain kingdom became far more accessible to the world with the completion of the paved Karakoram Highway. One of the world’s great engineering feats, the Karakoram Highway was chiseled out of a thousand kilometers of almost vertical mountain rock. Even with the work of tens of thousands of Chinese laborers, it took nearly twenty years to build. More than a thousand men died as a result of avalanches and accidents during its construction. Upon completion, it had an immediate impact upon the timeless tranquility of Hunza.

A few years later, a leading Hunzan elder, Gulam Mohamad Beg, described to an American reporter how the intrusion of the outside world has changed things:

Hunza is not the same since the Karakorum Highway invaded our quiet lives. Before, no one ever locked their doors. Theft was unheard of. Before, the social pressure to be honest was strong. Besides, there was little money to steal. Now everyone chases after money so they can ruin their health by buying canned food from Karachi. Every year there is more crime. Only ten years ago, we had no jail and no police! But the saddest part is that Hunza people are forgetting their own culture. We used to share everything. We passed the winters by dancing all day for hours on end. Our life was communal and that was enough. The completion of the Karakoram Highway created an entirely new social and economic reality for the Hunzans. As late as 1965, these were a people who did not use money. They paid no taxes and had no banks. All trade was barter. But now there are hotels, shops, and a tourist industry made up primarily of people coming to see the world’s most incredible views and climb the mountains. A scholar at the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, Dr. Julie Flowerday, calls the transformation that has occurred in Hunza in the last twenty years “as extraordinary as a cultural earthquake.” Since the construction of the road, whole new settlements have sprung up, and many Hunzans have migrated to the larger towns and villages in Pakistan. Young Hunzan men have enlisted in the Pakistani army, returning with a taste for tobacco and candy.

In recent years, Hunza has been formally annexed by Pakistan. Yet there are still some ways that Hunza retains its own culture. For example, many women in Pakistan are completely veiled, but women in Hunza do not wear veils, and they participate much more freely in wider community life than do women in most of Pakistan. The Hun-zans still farm their marvelous terraces completely organically. But with each passing day, Hunza is becoming less itself and more like the rest of Pakistan. Despite its idyllic past, Hunza can no longer maintain its isolation from the larger Pakistani society.

The younger Hunzans are now beginning to westernize their diets and lifestyles. Canned meat products, candy bars, and white flour are increasingly common. Diseases that had been unknown are starting to appear.

The phenomenal health and longevity of the Hunzans, who have endured for thousands of years and withstood ten thousand avalanches in the Karakoram mountains, are sadly now beginning to be buried under the greater avalanche of modern Western civilization.


On the other side of the world lies another of the societies long renowned for health and longevity: Vilcabamba. As in Hunza, modernity started to come to Vilcabamba in the 1970s. By the 1990s, progress had arrived in the form of a paved highway, electricity, primitive telephones, television, and a wide array of highly processed and refined foods including Coca-Cola and candy bars.

Along with the highway came modern medical practices. Through Ecuador’s Rural Medicine Program, eager young graduates arrived and began prescribing antibiotics and other drugs in Vilcabamba. Though this provided some benefits, within a few months of the arrival of the young physicians, several of the elders died of dysentery after antibiotics wiped out the friendly bacteria in their colons. As Vilcabamba has lost its isolation, attitudes too have begun to change. “Where elders used to be revered for their wisdom and experience,” reflects one longtime Vilcabamban, “they have now come to be regarded simply as old. Their traditional role as oral transmitters of history and culture, the sources of wisdom in the times of crises, has eroded, and they are now regarded as anachronistic.” Until very recently, the only way to get to Vilcabamba from Loja (the nearest town) was arduous, time-consuming, and treacherous. But now there is a two-lane highway with bus and taxi service from Loja. Only a few years ago, the center of Vilcabamba was a serene plaza with a small park and a church. The air was pristine. There were no cars, no electricity, no pavement. Now, the noise and exhaust of Jeeps and SUVs fills the plaza during the tourist season. There are internet cafés catering to gringo backpackers and wealthy Ecuadorians, and Vilcabamba even has its own tourist office.

The mineral-rich waters that course through town are still free for bathing, and the climate is still paradisiacal. But if you visit Vil-cabamba today expecting to find a place populated by healthy centenarians, you are likely to be disappointed. You probably won’t see village elders holding court or sitting in the plaza. Many of the remaining elders have moved far up into the hills. What you will see are members of the younger generation who eat candy bars, drink soda pop, and play video games. They are eager to migrate to the big city, though they often do not even begin to understand what will happen to them when they arrive, or the value of what is being lost.

It is sad to see wholesome cultures and ways of life that have thrived for countless centuries vanishing before our eyes. Sometimes, of course, leaving tradition behind is the only way that transformation and evolutionary development can occur. But I shudder to see Western consumerism becoming the dominant ethic in the world, and high-fat, high-sugar foods becoming the dominant diet.

These days, many people fear that the survival of the human race could be threatened by the breakdown of modern society as we know it. I’m beginning to wonder if our survival may be just as threatened by the continuation of modern society as we know it.


There is great violence and loss in our world today. Vast numbers of species are becoming extinct, as are the Bushmen and Pygmies, the oldest and perhaps the most unconditionally loving of all human societies. And many of the world’s healthiest and most life-affirming traditional cultures are finding it difficult to survive in the face of the continuing spread of Western consumer culture.

These realities affect us all. If we are going to find healing in these times, we need to see what is happening, acknowledge our grief, and act on behalf of what we love.

Many of us in the Western world have been taught to deny our pain. But when we do that, we fight against the truth of ourselves, and this creates illness on many levels. One of the great unacknowledged sources of sickness in the modern world is the repression of our feelings and the resultant decline in our capacity for joy and vivacity.

Armoring ourselves to keep from experiencing loss depletes us and prevents healing from occurring. It’s exhausting to continually hold in our emotions. When we avoid our pain, we tend to become dull and incapable of feeling. We become passive and resigned, not because we don’t care, but because we don’t grieve. We shut down because we have allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to feel. Rest, exercise, play, the releasing of unrealistic expectations, all help us cope. But sometimes we really begin to heal only when we learn how to live with our pain, when we become deeply intimate with our suffering, when we learn how to grieve.

This is not always easy to do, but if we try to avoid the pain of facing what is happening and seek comfort at any cost, we are left incapable of the love and emotional connection with others that we need in order to be healthy and whole. If we repress our grief, we suffocate our hearts.

There are a thousand voices in modern society and in each of our minds seeking to distract us from the sadness in our lives. We learn early to treat suffering as an enemy to be defeated, to reject what is unpleasant, difficult, or disappointing. Often, we judge ourselves harshly for our woundedness. But healing is not the absence of suffering. Healing is addressing our suffering and allowing it to catalyze responses that bring us to greater wholeness and make us more fully human. Healing begins with being who we are, with being honest about the reality of ourselves and our world. Compassion requires the courage to face suffering.

One of the secrets of the cultures in which people often live long, healthy, and happy lives is that they have ways of expressing and sharing their joys with other people, and perhaps even more important, their fears and their griefs. They recognize that we all have times when we feel overwhelmed and defeated, when we feel terribly alone, when we are tempted to hide in a corner and feel sorry for ourselves. They know we all have dark nights of the soul, and they understand that at such times it is necessary to have others to go to, others with whom we can be emotionally vulnerable and honest. In this way, even in the midst of our despair we are reminded that we are part of a community, that there are others who care about us, and that we are still part of the stream of life. Our grief becomes a source of connection to who we are, to our passion, commitment, courage, and vulnerability.

This is enormously important for us to understand today, because I don’t think anyone could become aware of the immensity of what is happening in our world and not feel pain for life and fear for our collective future. Each of us has our own suffering, of course, our personal losses and disappointments and frustrations. But the pain inside us today goes beyond the personal. It affects each of our individual lives and also something greater. It is the future of life on earth that now hangs in the balance.

This sorrow belongs to us all. It is in the nature of our times and it is ours to embrace. In the depths of our shared pain, we can also experience our shared caring, our mutual prayers, and the roots of our capacity to act. The pain we feel is the breaking of the shell that encloses our power to respond. Something precious can be born in times like these. In our shared pain, we labor to bring it to birth.

We live now in a time that has been called “the great turning.” In such a time, I believe it is our task to sustain the gaze, to be attentive both to what is dying and what is being born, to what is marred and what is beautiful. We are called to be unafraid of pain and unafraid of joy, to remember that no feeling is final, and to affirm our power to make a difference.

We are witnesses in our times to wars, destruction, plagues, and pestilence on a biblical scale. But what we do with calamity is up to us. We can let it shatter our resolve and our sense of possibility. Or we can use the pain to deepen our commitment to all that is good and life-giving in ourselves and the world.

I believe it helps to remember that at this moment, as in every moment, babies are being born, children are playing, and people are singing. People are learning to read, people are learning to listen, and people are learning to understand themselves and others. As people are finding new ways to resolve conflicts, friendships are being made and strengthened. Right now, millions of people are taking responsibility for their health, and giving of themselves that their families and communities might thrive.

It is profoundly important today that we not give up on ourselves and on one another, that we retain faith in the possibilities of human nature. It is true that as a species we have produced what Ruth Benedict called “surly and nasty” cultures, where people are warlike and mean-spirited. But we are also a species that has produced the Pygmies and the Bushmen, the Abkhasians and the Vilcabambans, the Hunzans and the Okinawans, and countless other societies where people have lived with respect for each other and for the greater earth community.

These are not easy times to uphold ourselves and the greater human possibility, nor to feel confident in our collective future. It saddens me beyond telling that human beings can be so destructive. But I take strength from the reality that as a species we have also produced people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and millions of others whose names are not as well known but whose lives have also demonstrated profound generosity, wisdom, and courage.

I am thinking, for example, of the hundreds of thousands of people who have worked day in and day out for decades so that we are now within a whisker of forever wiping out the last traces of both smallpox and polio from the face of the earth. And of the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who are endeavoring to create an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just human presence on this planet.

The next time anyone tells you that who you are doesn’t matter, or that your actions and love are insignificant, here’s what they need to know: All who take a stand with their lives on behalf of what they cherish are part of something vast. The struggle for justice is as old as tyranny itself, and the longing for a world guided by love is as old as the human heart.

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