Monster waves, a hundred feet high, form in the seas of ignorance
By Reid Furniss
Editor's note: World AIDS Day is Wednesday, Dec. 1.
On the open ocean, it is said, you can sometimes meet a monster wave a hundred feet high. They are born when several big waves merge into one. Sailors call them "white seas." Few ships survive encounters with these monster waves, which evade detection by weather technology and have a habit of showing up on your horizon without warning, shrouded in chill mist and thunder. While scientists debate if white seas really exist, a handful of seamen tell their stories of close calls.
On the oceans of human consciousness, there are "white seas" of belief that pile up and sweep everything before them. In belief, the mind and heart holds obsessively to a particular idea, long after there is evidence to the contrary. Among the most powerful and destructive are "waves of belief" about disease. Health is an emotional, often frightening subject for most people -- the nexus of life and death for all of us. Unlike "white seas" found in nature, however, the monster thought-waves can be pushed high by misinformation. Once set in motion, they carom onward for a long time, sometimes centuries, before they finally smash on some rocky shore of fact.
There is the belief that disease is punishment for our sins or those of our parents. Those who think this belief is "primitive" have only to listen to some of America's religious extremists today, who assert that our country teems with disease as God's punishment for having abandoned Bible teaching. Another belief is the one that women's menstrual cycle is "evil." Even today, despite science's clarity on the positivity of woman's cycle -- after all, it's how we all get born! -- many American women still refer to their monthlies as "the curse."
Scapegoating, or the belief that disease is caused by an unpopular group, is a freak wave that shows up repeatedly on horizons of history. In medieval times, churchmen solemnly swore that bubonic plague was caused by Jews. All across Europe, countless Jews lost their lives in persecutions because of this. Yet, in the 20th century, this belief still packed such deadly power that Hitler used it in his propaganda, claiming Jews were responsible for the syphilis epidemic raging across the West (one that finally ended with use of penicillin).
Today, in our media-intensive world, with all our minds plugged into the daily dynamics of belief-inducing processes -- entertainment, news, government, education, worship, and all the different belief-systems that own and operate the media -- many Americans experience a vastly intensified wave-impact of notions about disease. One has to ask whose media first generated these monster waves, and why. The amazing thing about these belief-waves is how they carry a rumbling mass of fantasy and misinformation all jumbled together.
The belief that saturated fat causes obesity is one of these waves. It raised its crest 50 years ago, in the post-World War II era. Yet the more Americans obsess about eliminating fat from their diet, the more obesity increases in our population -- along with related diseases such as diabetes and insulin deficiency -- in all age groups, notably children. Meat has been an easy target, in an age of growing concern about animal welfare and agricultural land use. Yet...is it possible that fat is actually necessary for health? Might the real culprit be sugar? Americans, especially children, consume a shocking amount of sugar. Sugar entered Western diets during the colonial era, with fortunes made from sugarcane plantations worked by slaves. Today it is hard to find sugarless processed food on our store shelves. Sugar in all its forms, including carbohydrates, can actually be addictive. Is it possible that our growing national problem with obesity, diabetes and insulin deficiency is the result of our national sugar habit?
There are signs that the sugar wave may be slowing, as more honest media give us glimmers of fact about diets that work because they minimize sugar and carbohydrate intake. Yet the food industry's vested interest in sugar is massive, so it may be some time before this particular "white sea" ends its run.
Most terrifying of all, because of their moral mass, are thought-waves of belief about AIDS. Through the cold mist and media thunder that shroud them, we can glimpse an emerging body of research showing that HIV may not be the virus that is actually killing people. No matter -- the wave rolls on. A great deal has been invested in building the wave, by interested parties in medicine, science, government, media, fundraising, religion. Thus, some people believe that a scapegoat group -- gay people -- are morally and physically responsible for the AIDS epidemic. Some believe that, if we remove HIV+ people from society -- forcibly, if necessary -- the epidemic will end.
The awesome power of human beings to let their thinking be swept in this way -- to accept an officially proclaimed belief about themselves and their world, however unfactual and destructive that belief may be -- is hair-raising to behold. As an adult, I have spent a lifetime pondering the power of belief in my own life, and the lives of others. Like the ship captain, I find myself staring off my own personal bridge at the towering monster, trying to keep my ship afloat, hoping to survive to tell the story.