People have been asking if I am seeing people with COVID symptoms in the medical office and the answer is: “Not regularly.” That may well change as counts are going up in many places, but in general it is not the coronavirus itself that has needed a lot of medical attention, but all of the challenges around it. It is hard to think of a recent medical visit that has not been strongly influenced by living in this time of COVID.
What are we learning from living in this time? Well, if we become sick with COVID, then our immune system will be challenged to decide: what is me and what is not me? Viruses infect our cells. They need our cells to replicate and that process continues until we develop enough “knowledge” to recognize what does not belong to us (the virus) and that it should be removed. We have to burrow deep into ourselves to fight a viral infection. Once that process is completed we will have established new immunity against that process. In that particular area, with that particular virus, we now know where to draw the line of “self” and “not-self.”Antibody resistance means we have worked through a particular pathway of encounter, and it will be easier to mark the line of self/not-self if we need to go that same way in the future.
Here’s a related thought–several weeks ago I was fortunate to teach sessions about anthroposophic medicine in a national conference on Mistletoe therapy and integrative oncology, a meeting where we discussed, from many sides, how important it is to strengthen immune capacities during cancer treatment. Outside treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation work to remove or kill cancerous cells, but the very fine work of finding and clearing out cancer cells is something we have to do ourselves. Integrative oncology research points more and more to the importance of healthy immune function, diet, detox, and working consciously to balance our inner world. After going through something like chemotherapy it can be especially important to reclaim ourselves since our body can feel foreign, even wooden—not really the home we have been used to. Cancer is also a disease that ultimately centers around the question of “self” and “not-self.”
Yet another kind of differentiation work arises whenever we experience an allergy. Whether pollen, dust mite, dairy, peanut, grass or fungus, reducing an allergy means developing better ways to be out in the world. The emphasis must be more on protecting ourselves so that we are not overwhelmed by what comes from the outside. We have to strengthen our boundaries. We must intentionally work to not become overwhelmed.
In more usual medical times there would be groups of people working with all of these kinds of processes, whether through a flu, a strep throat, bad hayfever or a the treatment of a tumor. Now, WE ARE ALL DOING IT, AT THE SAME TIME. Maybe not all on a physical/body level, but on a soul and social level. We are all having to repeatedly make conscious steps regarding how we are in the world: “What do I really need? What belongs to my core, what makes life feel meaningful?” as well as “What do I not need? What can I avoid, reduce, minimize?” Each of us must find our own answer.
Medically, I’ve learned that it is inadequate to assume that one knows exactly what another person’s experience of allergy or cancer will be. There are commonalities, but really they are always highly individual illnesses. If you don’t take the time to look carefully, then you end up thinking things like “this is a cancer, whose name is John Smith” instead of “This is John Smith, who is going through the process of working with a cancer.”
COVID is similarly unusual in that it affects some people so severely, while other people may be completely asymptomatic—COVID is also a highly individualized illness. That’s unusual to have an infectious, contagious illness that is so individualized.
Maybe all of this mask-wearing and social distancing has come in order for us to be more conscious about how we encounter each other, how we understand each other, how we see each other. It’s chewing at our habits of reflexively saying: this is safe, that is not, this is good, that is bad–even if it sometimes feels better and safer to go back to those habits. Maybe the lesson of this time is that we need to be able to immunologically determine “self” and “not-self” while also socially and morally feeling “self” and (masked) “other, also inherently good, self.”
It is admittedly not so easy to do medicine right now, working to see past the masks, or striving to make extra connection across a phone or zoom call. But it is building a good muscle. A social-sensing muscle. We urgently need those muscles.
Let’s all practice developing both immunologic wisdom and generous social perception.