With America's Heart Condition, it's Heal the Root--or Die

Updated: Jan 12

In Traditional East Asian Medical theory, the heart is recognized as the body’s rightful monarch. Americans are used to reversing this metaphor in calling the Capitol the “heart of our democracy." In that case, what we witnessed on 6 January was a national heart attack. Not a fatal one, thankfully (though it was for a few). But the body politic is already bracing for a second episode— even if, unlike a normal patient, we know when it’s coming. The overall prognosis is not good.

Obviously, the imperative in the short-run is to survive the crisis, which means defending the structures of government, flawed as they are, from the white supremacist, fundamentalist, violent extremism--keeping the heart beating. But longer-term, we have to look to underlying causes and treat the whole system, because the situation it critical.

For the last seventy years of our nation’s life, under democratic and republican leaders alike, our national body has grown morbidly obese. Of our several national addictions, among the worst is our addiction to oil. We have proven ourselves willing to orchestrate gruesome acts around the world to ensure our supply. And like all addicts, we’ve lost our integrity. While continuing to espouse high ideals, we lead the way in ravaging the environment; we continue to uphold racism in deed even when not in word; we prop up dictators in other countries and start wars when it serves our interests-- although lately we haven’t had to resort to such crude tactics, since economic imperialism is more efficient.

We’ve long been a sick country. You can trace the sickness back to our very roots, to the founding fathers who preached liberty while trading in human chattel.

Parts of this national body, cut off from vital circulation, have become gangrenous, putrid with unchecked infection. Until we address the septic conditions that breed the infection, we’re just treating the symptom and playing for time. We have to look to the terrain, the ground of culture. Going after a current crop of extremist ringleaders only serves as a pruning to the larger organism--in the end, only stimulates its growth. We need deeper change--culture change. A change of heart.

Why have we insisted on treating the branches for so long while ignoring the root? Because deep healing means change that's truly radical: as deep as our country's roots. Treating the root means reckoning with all the ugliness in our past—the horrors of racism, imperialism, patriarchy, all the damage wrought by greed and selfishness in their many forms. It means breaking our addiction to oil. It means treating all life with respect, starting with the whole human family in its beautiful diversity, but not stopping there. It means treating animals with respect, as well, and no longer gorging ourselves on gross quantities of their sickened, industrialized bodies. It means recognizing the value—not just the economic value—of intact forests, clean rivers, healthy soil, intact mountains. It means coming down off our national high horse and admitting before the world the harms we’ve done. It means a massive reckoning, a great humbling and a deep cleansing. A sloughing off of the old so that we can find renewal.

We must recognize that while the recent protests are a vicious threat, they’re also a symptom. And at this late stage, we limit our analysis to symptoms at our own peril. Once the vessels are cleared again and the most acute phase of this crisis is past, our only hope lies in addressing the deep, tangled roots beneath. Change is hard, and healing is not for the faint of heart. But for America, it’s Heal or Die. If not from this attack, then from the next, or the one after that.

A new administration take the reins in 10 days. Let us hope that their talk of healing is more than talk: let us hold them accountable to the commitment to truth and justice needed for healing. And let us remember that our body, divided as it has become, is still one. That "Divided We Fall" is the inevitable flip side of our national motto. And that, sick and dangerous as some elements in the culture have become, we must be careful how we confront them, lest we become the evil we seek to expunge.

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