|As today's technology deals with cloning and mapping DNA, it is difficult to realize that less than 150 years ago we had absolutely no idea what even caused disease. Between the end of the US Civil War (1865) and now, massive changes have taken place in how we perceive our world and our "power" in it. At each stage we can see that our beliefs about health and disease are shaped by the boundaries of our life experience.
The Supernatural Model
In the late 19th Century disease and dysfunction were explained by a potentially hostile supernatural universe over which humans had little or no control.
Fear of disease and death were a major organizing element in the dominant worldview.
- The Divine Theory - Illness resulted as punishment for sin and misbehavior
- The Demonic Theory - People could become possessed by evil forces
- The Miasmatic Theory - Hidden entities lingering in the air, soil, etc. emerged when people were feeling poorly
The Warrior Model
By the early 20th Century a fundamental revolution occurred in this worldview.
- Industry and technology gave humans the capacity to "master" the forces of nature
- Laboratory science revealed the "miasmas" were identifiable bacteria and viruses, not supernatural beings.
Thus science and technology promised an answer to the fear of death and disease.
With the widening separation of science and religion there grew the dominance of the "outer rational" view of life and diminution of the "inner subjective" view of meaning. The Warrior Model assumes that the body is essentially failing and needs to be fixed in oder to overcome nature. Science and medicine became warriors against disease and death.
The Self-Regulating Systems Model
Yet not everyone exposed to a bacteria became ill. Originally Claude Bernard was ignored when he stated " I think it at least as important to study the factors in the lives of those who did not become ill to determine how that came about as it is to study how to treat whose who fall ill." Then, concurrent with the wane of the infectious diseases in the 1920s was the rapid rise of chronic and degenerative disorders - heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis. The inadequacy of medicine's attempt to treat these conditions in the adversary (germ theory) model became increasingly evident. Since these disorders are systemic functions in the whole organism, attempting to stem the disease as a separate "entity" proved difficult, if not counterproductive.
The Self-Regulating Systems Model assumes that the body is essentially wise and well, and is made ill by life factors which can be corrected. It will then heal itself. Rather than seeking causes to be fixed or symptoms to be modified, the investigator seeks patterns that result in dysfunction. Once the patterns are known, they can be changed and the potential consequences avoided. Our increased knowledge about how life systems operate grew into an awareness of "lifestyle" medicine and the impact of nutrition, exercise, smoking, and substance abuse.
The Consciousness Model
With this model the universe is considered self-revealing. Today, practitioners of somatic psychology ("focusing," inner journal work, and other self-exploration techniques) say that if we can clarify our inner questions, "the universe will answer them." Perhaps disease and dysfunction have encoded within them the message available to us about how best to respond. This shifts the emphasis in healing from "doing to" to "being with." Healing becomes a matter of a shift of personal perspective rather than a rescue achieved.
New Power and Responsibility in Our Lives - Intentionality
Just a few generations ago, we felt helpless and victimized by supernatural forces when illness appeared. We are now learning the deeper patterns of living systems, and how our hopes, fears, intentions, and desires may be woven into our lives and our bodies. In this new, more inclusive perspective, we have not only our inner awareness, but all of the knowledge of history and science from which to choose to heal and improve our lives. This is both a new responsibility for becoming more self-aware and intentional and a possibility of new levels of health, well-being, and human achievement.
This article is adapted from "Our Evolving Views of Health and Illness: What Does It All Mean?" by Richard B. Miles that appeared in Issue No. 3 (February 1998) of "Connections" a magazine of the Institute of Noetic Sciences.