Thursday, January 6, 2011

Living Circular in a Linear World

     Western life relies--absolutely relies--on a linear worldview. There needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end to pretty much everything. Birth, life, death. Sunrise, day, night. Get up, go to work, come home. Get sick, be sick, get well. We order our lives on a National Geo time-line that we fold out, metaphorically, when we need to make tick marks to record events. We usually organize those events and the spaces between them by their proximity to each other along the time-line. That is, we usually think about stuff according to, "When did it happen?" and "When is it going to happen?"
     Take a look at your calendar. It's a line. Oh, at first glance it may look like a block with days and weeks arranged into units--days from left to right, weeks from top to bottom. Really, though, that's just convenience so we don't have to keep up a line of days stretching left to right for 365 units. If each day takes up an inch on the line, that's a line over 30 feet long per year. Pack that in your Day Planner. So, we break up that line into units that we can stack like blocks. But it's still a line.
     Many folks around the world, on the other hand, operate within some sort of non-linear worldview. They are manifested in various ways but share the aspect that life's events and processes are not perceived--or grouped--strictly according to temporal proximity. Rather, they tend to be perceived--and grouped--according to similarities that are not strictly time-based. What happened? Who was involved? Where did it happen? Frequently, such worldviews are described as circular. (I prefer to see them as spherical, but only because a sphere could contain more pieces than a circle; it's a 3-D thing.) The point of that word picture is that events are categorized in groups like pie pieces, more or less regardless of their linear temporal proximity. That's not to say that there is no sense of temporal progression among people who operate within a circular (spherical) worldview. It's just that temporal progression is not the organizing principle of their lives.
     So, the reason I began this post is that I have been thinking about how people with circular worldviews deal with long-term or chronic illness. As I noted earlier, in a linear perspective, we get sick, we are sick, then we get well. At least that's how it's supposed to work, right? Assuming there are appropriate and effective treatments, of course. Consequently, chronic illness is a conundrum in a linear worldview. How do we handle an illness that has a beginning, a middle, and no end? We can make a tick mark on the National Geo fold-out time-line for the first sign of symptoms or the first diagnosis, we can tick off days during which the illness is present and, hopefully, being treated, but we cannot make a mark for the day of wellness. The end of the calendar comes along, still no tick mark. That calendar is replaced by another calendar, whose end also comes along, still no tick mark. And so on. And so on. Doctors get frustrated. Patients get frustrated. Family and friends get frustrated. What the heck to do when we can't find that last tick mark?
     Because I study culture and cultural behavior, I have begun to wonder about how illness, especially chronic illness, is viewed through a circular worldview. I know that non-Westernized people often view illness as more than or different than the biological, chemical, or physiological malfunctions that they are seen as from a Western perspective. I know that human illness is frequently seen as manifesting imbalance within a human, between humans, or between humans and other members and aspects of the natural and supernatural world(s). So, like our Western, linear perspective, illness is a problem that wants resolution. The difference seems to be that, in a circular perspective, illness is not THE problem but a symptom of THE problem. It seems reasonable to think, then, that chronic illness is a symptom of a problem that is difficult to resolve--a major imbalance of some sort, perhaps--or takes a long time to resolve or can't be resolved.
     In my spare time--presuming I ever have any--I hope to learn more about non-Western perspectives on illness, particularly chronic illness. As it turns out, I am now involved in the early stages of a research project involving cancer and exposure to natural radioactivity among pre-Columbian Native Americans. Perhaps that will open doors for me to better understand non-Western perspectives on illness and living with chronic illness in a linear world.

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