The myth of the normal

Author: Gabor Maté

Category: Psychology,Myth

Issue: No. 97

In his book “The Myth of the Normal”, the renowned Canadian doctor and addiction expert Gabor Maté examines the causes of illness and trauma in our society in detail. We learn about a different view to the one conveyed to us by contemporary medicine, the media and society. At the same time, he shows us ways to make peace with ourselves and embark on the path to healing.

This book, The Myth of the Normal, is about something much broader. I have come to the conclusion that behind the whole epidemic of chronic physical and mental illness that is currently plaguing us, there is something wrong with our culture itself. Not only does it contribute to the many illnesses we suffer from, but also, and crucially, to ideological blind spots. They keep us from clearly recognizing our predicament and, better yet, doing something about it. These blind spots are widespread throughout our culture, but are tragically prevalent in my own profession. They are responsible for the fact that we have no idea how our health and our social and emotional lives are connected. In other words, chronic illness – whether mental or physical – is largely a result or characteristic of existing circumstances and not a disorder. They are a consequence of our way of life, not a mysterious aberration.

Talk of a ‘toxic culture’ can refer to many things, such as the environmental pollutants that have been so ubiquitous and so detrimental to human health since the dawn of the industrial age. From asbestos particles to enormous quantities of harmful carbon dioxide: There really is no shortage of real, physical toxins in our immediate environment. We could also understand “toxic” in its modern and popular-psychological sense, as exemplified in the prevalence of negativity, mistrust, hostility and polarization typical of the socio-political present. We can of course include these two meanings in our discussion, but I use the term “toxic culture” to describe something even broader and more deeply rooted: the entire context of social structures, belief systems, assumptions and values that surrounds us and inevitably permeates every aspect of our lives.

The fact that our social lives affect our health is not new, but there has never been a more urgent need to recognize this.

I see this as the most important and consequential health risk of our time, fueled by the effects of increasing stress, inequality and climate catastrophe, to name just a few major factors. Our concept of wellbeing must shift from the individual to the global – in every sense of the word. This is especially true in our age of globalized capitalism which, in the words of historian and cultural critic Morris Berman, “has become a total commercial environment that encompasses an entire mental world.” Given the unity of body and mind that this book seeks to emphasize, I would add that it also constitutes a total physiological environment.

In my opinion, our social and economic culture by its very nature creates chronic stressors. They undermine wellbeing in a very serious way as we have seen increasingly in recent decades. We should see many diseases not as cruel twists of fate or malevolent mysteries, but rather as an expected and therefore normal consequence of abnormal, unnatural circumstances. This would have a revolutionary effect on the way we deal with our health.

Sick bodies and souls would no longer be seen as an expression of an individual illness, but as a living alarm signal. They would draw our attention to where our society has gone off the rails. To where our current certainties and assumptions about health are in fact fiction. If they were clearly recognized, they might also give us clues as to what needs to be done to change direction and create a healthier world. The current medical model is based on a seemingly scientific belief that in some ways resembles ideology more than empirical knowledge. It therefore makes a double mistake: it reduces complicated events to their biology and separates the body from the mind. It deals almost exclusively with one or the other and fails to understand the fundamental unity of the two. This omission does not invalidate the undeniably fantastic achievements of medicine or the good intentions of so many people who practice it. But it does severely limit the good things that medicine could do.

About the author

Dr. Gabor Maté is an internationally renowned Canadian physician, author and expert on addiction, stress and child development. His books are all bestsellers and have been translated into over 25 languages. Gabor Maté has a global network and is a sought-after speaker. His work and life’s work were captured on film in the award-winning documentary “The Wisdom of Trauma – The Wise Pain of the Soul”.

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” – Bhagavad-gita

This article was originally published on the German website: Vom Mythos des Normalen

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