A friend asked me, “Do you think herbs actually do something, or not?”
Sometimes you catch a question that hotwires your mind. I got to thinking: how do we know herbs work? Well, why shouldn’t they? Some of allopathy’s most useful medicines—morphine, aspirin, some anti-cancer drugs—derive from plants. The potency of some herbs, and maybe all, is indisputable.
Since we’re asking, how do we know if pharmaceuticals work? Well, sometimes we feel a dramatic change. Most standard medical drugs are designed to be more forceful than herbs or other alternative meds, so their effects can be readily noticeable. (Did I say “more forceful?” Frankly, we often swat flies with cannons.) Anesthetics, antibiotics and analgesics in particular make an obvious sensory splash.
But with some drugs, the question can’t be answered. Adele, a member of our cancer group, wondered if her chemo was working. “I mean, how can you tell?”
“Well, how do you feel?” someone asked her.
“Are you tired?” asked another.
We yearn for a grip on this issue, some metric handhold.
“Well, when’s your next MRI?”
“Oh yeah, my MRI’s next Thursday. That ought to show whether it’s been working.”
That’s when Alec steps in. “You mean if the tumor’s smaller, then the chemo’s working?”
“And if the tumor’s bigger, it’s not working?”
“Well, what if the tumor’s bigger, and if it hadn’t been for the chemo, you’d be dead now? Or say the tumor’s smaller, then how do you know if the chemo did that, or if it was your diet or prayer or zest for life?”
Alec can be a bit frontal, but he’s worth listening to. “You go read studies,” he continued, “and they say it works. Well, that’s reassuring, you say. That’s all well and good, but then you think about it: wait a minute, there’s no treatment that’ll work for everyone, so what if it’s me who gets the short end? And you’re back to your original question, ‘Is it working?’ All the statistics in the world don’t matter boo to individuals, anyway. Another guy in this group years ago said, ‘The only numbers I’m interested in are a hundred and zero. Either I’m here or I’m not.’”
So how do we know if this medicine we take is doing what we want it to do? Alec’s right. In most cases, especially in Cancerland, we don’t know and probably can’t know. Probably the greatest source of anxiety among people with cancer is not-knowing. While a tumor might go unfelt, uncertainty tortures around the clock.
Uncertainty is a far more potent feature of the universe than I am. Compared to forces like that, I am, like Job, dust. The realization that I can’t rearrange reality as I’d like can be really annoying. That can invite me to ask myself why uncertainty, such a pervasive, eternal, and undeniable feature of reality, bothers me. If uncertainty is inherently universal, from quarks up, then why don’t I just learn to live comfortably with it? Would dropping my discomfort be risky or dangerous or taboo or illegal, or what?
Abraham Maslow, a founder of the humanistic psychology movement, was one of the few people to study normality. When we crave mental health, what is it, exactly, that we’re after? Of the hallmark list he developed, the one that fascinates me the most is “comfort with uncertainty.”
OK, sounds good. Where do I sign up? Sorry, this is a blog, not an ashram.
Vaya con Dios.