Thursday, June 6, 2019

Rigid Disbelief: An Obstacle to Healing



The psychologist, William McDougall, recounts the case of a client who came to him after a year of struggling with his affliction. A young man got his left hand violently caught in a hay-rake, and emerged from the accident with his forearm reduced to a state of paralysis and anesthesia.  Several doctors, including one that left scars from a failed electrical treatment, treated him without success; another offer was to simplify matters by amputating the apparently useless limb.
             
According to McDougall, the young man was absolutely convinced he could not be healed. No one had helped him so far; so he thought of himself as a hopeless case.  The man needed to be disabused of the false belief he had embraced.  “It was only through a course of education, persuasion, and suggestion (waking and hypnotic) and encouragement continued over some weeks that the cure was effected. The essential step was to shake and undermine his fixed belief in the permanent nature of the paralysis.” (See his Outline of Abnormal Psychology.)
           
McDougall’s 1926 approach sounds like what today we call spiritual, cognitive, or philosophical therapy.  In the foregoing story, belief was the material that had to be worked on; the methods all rely on using our higher mental faculties, which is what we mean by spiritual therapy. We make use of reason, conversation, encouragement, and so forth -- expressions of what we call ‘spirit’. 
            
McDougall’s case is highly significant.  It seems true to say that we all have our limits as to what we believe is possible.  Each of us may be described as having a belief profile, a set of psychic fingerprints that define the range and order of our private belief-system.  My point is a simple reminder of how easy it is to become “paralyzed” by our beliefs, and as a consequence remain trapped in ways we can’t seem to deal with. In the absence of the belief that something is possible, in most cases it just won’t happen because it won’t occur to us to try.  But the belief that something is possible can lower the barriers and free up unexpected forces that could move us along toward our goal.   
             
Different areas of research point to the positive power of beliefs.  The first is religious experience.  The whole of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a hymn to the power of focused belief.  In Morton Kelsey’s study of healing in the gospel narratives, Jesus typically caps a healing with the saying, “your pistis (trust, faith) has made you whole.”  The trust, confidence, hope, energy, willingness, etc., all have to come from within oneself.  Jesus didn’t say, I healed you. It was more like a joint interaction than a pure gift from a divine outsider.  In fact, our most creative achievements usually require some supportive social matrix.  Jesus and the healed person need each other to move ahead and break through the obstruction at hand.  And even when we are profoundly alone and abandoned, help may arrive in ways that seem miraculous. See, for example, John Geiger’s fascinating The Third Man Factor.
            
In our scientifically medical times, the healing power of belief is repeatedly affirmed under the guise of “placebo effect”.  The mere belief that a substance, person, or procedure has healing power will lend that substance, person or procedure a measurable therapeutic power.  In an experiment conducted at Harvard, patients were given ipecac and told it would rid them of their nausea; it did.  What they didn’t know was that the chemical composition of ipecac normally induces nausea.  It appears that a belief, a peculiar mental state, stopped the chemical effect of a substance and produced (against chemistry) the desired healing effect.  Evidence for the placebo effect is just another example of a phenomenon at odds with reductive materialism.  This power of belief to trump physical reality speaks in general to the power of our minds to reshape nature itself.
           
Another body of experimental data encourages us to appreciate the power of beliefs, attitudes, and expectations.   Psychologist Gertrude Schmeidler coined the expression “sheep-goat” effect to describe a trend: Belief in one’s ability to succeed in a parapsychological experiment is related to positive results; disbelief creates deviation from chance in the opposite direction.  The latter suggests that consistently unlucky or unhealthy people may have a hand in harming themselves. Strong disbelievers might well be at odds with their own self-healing capacities. This neglected research proves the self-fulfilling nature of our various beliefs.     
            
For some, a deep-rooted sense of worthlessness may destroy their confident hopes that any all-round renovation is possible.  In our presently constituted political and economic world, we should remember that certain people and institutions stand to profit by destroying the confidence and positive beliefs we may have about our own self-healing powers.  It may not have occurred to most of us that forces are in play dedicated to undermining that confidence.
             
There is a time of day in American TV I call the hospital hour, mostly around dinnertime and the evening news. During the hospital hour the nation is bombarded with suggestions that we may be suffering from innumerable health concerns and indispositions.   We are urged repeatedly, day in and day out, and using the same formula, to “see your doctor!”  We are deluged by warnings, innuendos, and alarmist threats that we are at risk for this or that disease or catastrophe.
             
One malignant ad I recall shows an empty gurney rolling itself along following a man, suggesting a heart attack was imminent if he failed to “see his doctor” about some advertised med.  The image was designed to stir up latent feelings of anxiety about one’s health.  Everything is designed to give the impression that the forces out there are poised to save us.  Anyone who believes that is na├»ve, to put it mildly.
            
 The purpose of the hospital hour, as it appears to me, is to undermine the average American’s sense of well-being, for it does nothing but raise doubts about the wellness of the viewer’s self, health, and prospects for a good life.  As we stare at these commercial ads, we are pounded by images and blatant suggestions that we are not well.            

McDougall’s client was convinced he had an incurable illness. We need to keep a critical eye on our key beliefs because the omnipresent vampire of profit-obsessed global capitalism needs to keep us as weak as possible so it can flourish. A general attitude of healthy confidence and independence toward life and its daily challenges is undoubtedly the worst possible thing for any institution that thrives on fear, weakness, and misery.  The truth is that there are vested interests that will not tolerate a fundamentally healthy yea-saying stance before the world.  What are needed are people inclined to rush off to their doctors and pharmacists at the first sign of pain or discomfort.
             
Fear is a valid emotion useful in certain circumstances, but the use of it as a weapon for controlling people’s beliefs for the sake of political and economic aims is something else. A steady diet of fear can undermine our healthiest instincts. We have to fight back against the system with courage and confidence.
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