The Myth of Normal and the Reality of Healing: An Exploration with Gabor Maté and Jed Diamond

Part 2 – Trick or Treat

            In Part 1, I explored the work Dr. Maté and I have been doing over the last fifty years on developing new ways to understanding illness and healing. I described the importance of his new book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture and what we can learn and apply to our own lives.

            In this article, I want to talk about the culture in which we live and why what we have come to recognize is “normal” is actually quite unhealthy. I have come to see it most directly at this time of year when we move from fall into winter. For years I would get sick at this time of year, usually around my birthday in December. At first I thought it was just “flu season” and people get sick because flu is more prevalent and it is more easily spread as we spend more time in doors.

            However, I’ve come to recognize a different reality. When I observe nature, we see that this time of year the plants and the animals are quieting down. The exuberance of spring and summer quiets and becomes more inwardly focused as we move into fall and winter. But this is a time of year where human activity accelerates. I see it happening all around me as more and more neighbors put up Halloween decorations, invitations to attend costume parties come in, and once again we need to decide whether to buy “healthy” treats to give out to the kids who come trick-or-treating or just give them the candy they expect.

            October is just the beginning. We are also revving up for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Every year I try and tell myself to stay more tuned in with the slow and quiet way nature celebrates this season and less caught up in the rush-rush, commercial, demands of our current “normal” way of life.

            I’m doing a better job each year, but I have to remind myself and try and get family and friends to join me. Writing about what I’m doing and thinking about can help. This year I’m drawing on the wisdom of Dr. Gabor Maté.

            “The phrase ‘a toxic culture,’” says, Gabor, “may suggest things like environmental pollutants, so prevalent since the dawn of the industrial age and so antagonistic to human health.”

He goes on to say,

“We could also understand ‘toxic’ in its more contemporary, pop-psychological sense, as in the spread of negativity, distrust, hostility, and polarization that, no question, typify the present socio-political moment.”

            Gabor recognizes an even more deeply rooted way in which our present worldview is unhealthy:

The entire context of social structures, belief systems, assumptions, and values that surround us and necessarily pervade every aspect of our lives.”

            In these ways our toxic culture is invisible to us, in the same way that a fish swimming in water that is polluted doesn’t recognize the pollution. For the fish it is just the medium he as born into and has lived his whole life within. The fish will still get sick, may die before his time, but will not know what caused the problems.

            Fortunately, humans have greater awareness than fish and so can come to see the environment in which we live, and accept as normal, may be killing us. Sometimes a visionary healer can help shine a spotlight on our reality and help us see it anew. Gabor Maté is one of those people who has helped open my eyes to see the truth and create a new, healing, reality.

“That social life bears upon health is not a new discovery,”

Gabor says,

“but the recognition of it has never been more urgent. I see it as the most important and consequential health concern of our time, driven by the effects of burgeoning stress, inequality, and climate catastrophe, to name a few salient factors. Our concept of well-being must move from the individual to global in every sense of the word.”

Improving Men’s Mental Health is the Key to the Health and Wellbeing of Women and Children

            In 2004, my colleagues Randolph Nesse, MD and Daniel Kruger, PhD published a study that examined premature deaths among men in 20 countries and cultures throughout the world. They found that in every country, men died sooner and lived sicker than women and their shortened health and lifespan harmed the men and their families.

They concluded with four powerful statements:

  • “Being male is now the single largest demographic factor for early death.”
  • “Over 375,000 lives would be saved in a single year in the U.S. alone if men’s risk of dying was as low as women’s.”
  • “If male mortality rates could be reduced to those for females, this would eliminate over one-third of all male deaths below age 50 and help men of all ages.”
  • “If you could make male mortality rates the same as female rates, you would do more good than curing cancer.” 

When I began working in the field of gender medicine and men’s health in 1969, there were very few programs that focused on men’s mental, emotional, and relational health. Now there are many. In November, 2021 I invited a number of colleagues who have been doing significant work in the field of men’s health to join with me in creating a “moonshot movement for mankind.” This group includes:

Although both men and women can suffer from mental health problems, the ways they express their pain and the impact on society differs. The comedian Elayne Boosler captures this difference in a humorous, but also insightful comparison. “When women are depressed, they eat or go shopping. Men invade another country. It’s a whole different way of thinking.” We might add that men also turn their violence inward and die from suicide at rates 3-18 times higher than do women.

Our Moonshot Mission for Mankind and Humanity is dedicated to reducing violence of all kinds. You can learn more about our community here. If you’d like to read more articles like these, I invite you to join our free newsletter.

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