This week I’ve been writing about the atomistic nature of Western science which I argue isn’t a bad thing: in fact it’s a useful tool for problem solving. Problem is scientists often believe this is the only problem-solving method and we lose sight of the connections between the discrete bits—the atomistic nature of science.
Western medical science has been struggling with the intersections of disease and health for decades; we’ve heard about the myriad studies that examine connections between health and attitudes, outlooks and lifestyles. In a famous example, Norman Cousins, when diagnosed with a serious illness, got an armload of Marx Brothers films, arguing that laughter would slow the disease.
Understanding how the individual feels about her disease has gained traction in all sorts of circles, from popular media to medical science. Showtimes latest entry is the program The Big C, where Julliard-trained actor Laura Linney’s character (Cathy) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Weekly we listen as Cathy talks about how cancer turns her world sideways.
Such story-telling has taken hold in academic circles. Columbia University launched a new master’s degree program in narrative medicine that channels the power of story-telling. According to the school’s website, it’s “the first degree program of its kind, this important educational advance improves the quality of patient care and contributes to the healing of our ailing health care system itself.” It makes sense that Western medicine should attend to the stories patients tell.
Of course, story-telling is central to indigenous ways-of-knowing, and Western medicine could benefit from learning Native knowledges. Problems arise, however, when Native medicine is broken into discrete bits and outsiders borrow one part without the other.
Osage writer William Least Heat Moon described this eloquently, so I’ll close with his observation from his book PrairyErth. Moon heard a farmer describe the buffalo gourd as “some goddam old vine.” But “for the Osages the vine is mon-kon-nee-ki-sin-gah, human being medicine. The seeds, flesh and pulp can be used for cleansing and healing, but the remedies are lost on non-Indians because this passing of useful botanical knowledge from Red people to white is the exception not because whites often scorned such wisdom, but because medicine men and Indian women, the keepers of much of this knowledge, had little commerce with settlers; and often, surely, lore must have been deliberately withheld from a people taking away the land, so that the thieves got the big machine but not the operating instructions.”