Disease Divine

Diseases, for most people of the modern West, are difficult to diagnose as divine. At my wife’s urging, I’ve been reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. I have a feeling I’ll be commenting on various aspects as I read through it, but something caught me almost immediately. Although the book is not about religion, the culture of the Hmong (about which I knew nothing just hours ago) is truly imbued with religion. Our medical science is, well, science (unless perhaps you’re from Athens, Georgia). Western culture since the Enlightenment has come to understand many of the body’s systems intimately, discerning just which chemicals to proscribe to treat this or that electro-chemical reaction in the body. And we consider it normal. Epilepsy, the condition of Lia Lee, is a disease that, as Fadiman points out, has had a long divine pedigree even in the west. The Judaic tradition at various stages considered it demonic possession, the Romans understood it as a kind of deity-induced madness.

Interestingly, Fadiman uses the case of Tony Coelho, an epileptic and congressmen, to make a point about the Hmong community. Coelho, she notes, had been intending to enter the priesthood but the Church has a canon forbidding ordination to an epileptic. This gave me a considerable pause. Clergy in many cultures must be “perfect” physical specimens. According to the Hebrew Bible, men who had certain deformities “down there” were disqualified, although, one notes, that they would have served fully clothed. Epilepsy, having been putative cured by Jesus many times, might seem a strange disqualifier from priesthood. I wondered why it was singled out from among the many maladies that might have seemed more pressing. Even in our enlightened age, epilepsy still bears the scars of the divine.

Narrating the experience of the Hmong in a Thai refugee camp, Fadiman notes that the subtext was often conversion. As she points out, for the Hmong medicine is religion. Although the missionaries had converted some, their very enthusiasm ensured that the Hmong would not generally go to them for treatment. Here is a stark difference between a people whose religion permeates every aspect of their lives and westerners for whom religion is compartmentalized in a different place than medical science. For the Hmong, wellness is part of a larger picture from which religious belief simply can’t be separated. For some epilepsy is a disease to be cured, if possible. For others it is a sign of a budding shaman. I look forward to reading more, as it is clear that by shifting perspectives, even the enlightened might have something to learn from those they deem uneducated.

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