A woman once told me a strange story about her husband. When he was a teenager he stopped at a carnival to consult with a fortune teller. She told him he was going to have a wonderful life but that he would die when he was 35 years old. As his 35th birthday approached, he took ill and by the time he was 35 passed away. The autopsy indicated there was no explanation of his death. His death was an extreme example of nocebo, the opposite of placebo: he believed he was going to die, which apparently caused him to die.
In contrast, as a positive reminder of the power of our beliefs—take the well known case of ‘Mr. Wright’, a man on the verge of death. For some reason, Wright heard about Krebiozen, a new cancer cure, and believed it would cure him. He talked his doctor into injecting him with the drug, and the baseball-sized tumors in his body vanished almost immediately. For months Mr. Wright enjoyed perfect health until he read that Krebiozen was not a miracle cure after all; the cancer returned with a vengeance.
However, the doctor pretended he gave Wright the wrong dose, but this time just injected water into the cancer-ridden man. Thinking he had ingested the right dose of a miracle drug, again the cancer vanished, and off he went for several months in fine health until once more he read in a newspaper that the stuff he thought cured him was officially pronounced worthless. This time the disease came back quickly and quickly killed him. Clearly, the healing power was the man’s belief; when he lost that belief he lost the magic charm that had kept him in perfect health. Solely by means of his own beliefs, Wright healed himself twice completely and by his beliefs also scared himself to death.
These are strange facts. They say something about the creative power of certain states of mind, for example--faith, confidence, imagination—versatile powers, capable of good and ill. Walter Cannon investigated the physiology of fear and studied cases of people who died as a result of being subjected to a voodoo curse. Perfectly healthy men die because they believe they have been enchanted or that a sorcerer has pointed the bone at them. The belief, however arbitrary and absurd, causes the vital system to crash and result in death. And yet, as Cannon reminds us, “the implicit faith which a native cherishes in the magic powers of his tribal magician is said to result in cures exceeding anything recorded by the faith-healing disciples of the more civilized communities.”
Why so? Perhaps the stronger the imagination, the less inhibited by civilized doubt, the more powerful the effects. Based on much and varied data, it seems we may possess the psychical resources to kill ourselves or to heal ourselves (and others, we should add.).
But our mainstream culture isn’t interested. Our ‘healer’ within has to compete with Big Pharma, the doctors, and a constant media blitz reminding us “to consult with our doctor” about drugs we may need. The entire profit-focused culture is designed to make us conscious of how needy we are, not to promote the wonders of our inner potentials. And we of course know why, and I’ll respond with a sign we all recognize--$$$.
It may seem an exaggeration, but we are fighting a war for our souls, as well as for our bodies; an undeclared war, which makes it more lethal. War is being waged against the total commodification of life. To defend ourselves against the agents of appropriation and degradation stalking us, we need to pay attention to the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that we cultivate. For lying in wait are the exploitation of our fears and resentments.
In the practice self-awareness, we need to note how our words may unwittingly affect other people—sometimes with fatal effect. J. C. Barker, an English M.D., published a book in 1968, Scared to Death: An Examination of Fear, its Causes and Effects. Barker begins with a story about how he inadvertently used one ill-chosen word that caused his first patient to die of a heart attack. The one word merely and barely connoted imminent death, but in that context was perceived as stressful enough to stop a vulnerable patient’s heart.
We forget how powerful beliefs, attitudes, and expectations can be. A reminder that we can scare ourselves to death or heal ourselves from lethal diseases makes me wonder. Are my beliefs--my way of responding to the world--primed to help or hinder, heal or harm me? Am I planting landmines for myself or clearing the obstacles from the road ahead?
How often do we take inventory of our inner resources? Do we have the skills necessary to avoid being scared to death? All sorts of saboteurs of soul life feed on our weaknesses, ready to exploit our fears to gain power over us. One thing is worse than being scared to death: being scared into living as if we were already dead.