Hundreds of millions of people suffer from allergic diseases such as asthma and hay fever, or from autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis. Allergies and autoimmune diseases both come from overactive immune systems’ reacting to harmless substances in the environment or to our own body cells. These diseases can cripple and kill individuals, but our society also suffers from a systemic immune condition. Like someone with an overactive political immune system, America’s extreme overemphasis on safety and protection damages our social fabric and kills people.
To explain, immune diseases often result from our bodies’ not having enough real threats to work on. Our society treats bacteria and viruses as enemies. Anything we can do to kill germs or keep them away from us is supposed to be good for our health. We’re in a war against Nature; we need to suppress it or avoid it with antiseptics, antibiotics, intense house cleaning, hand sanitizers or whatever other weapons science can develop and capitalists can market. We have created artificial low-germ environments that our immune systems have not evolved to handle, and they go haywire.
This is called the Hygiene Hypothesis, and there is a lot of evidence for it. Older siblings have more allergies than younger ones, because the young ones are exposed to their elders’ germs. People who live on farms, around animals, dirt, and plants have less autoimmune disease than those who live in cities. Wealthier people, who often live in cleaner environments, have more autoimmune disease than poorer folks. According to Harvard researcher WA Walker, ‘babies born by cesarean section [So not exposed to germs in the birth canal] have a higher incidence of allergy and type 1 diabetes. Infants given repeated antibiotic regimens during the first year of life are more likely to have asthma as adolescents.’
These outcomes are unfortunate for people like me who live with disabling immune diseases, but how do they apply to society? As with a diseased immune system, our society shows an obsessive focus on protection and safety, along with a deficiency of nurturing and healing, which are also part of a healthy immune system’s job. The systems designed to keep us safe, like police, military, and intelligence agencies, have gone rogue and cause far more harm than they prevent. Our answer to social problems is always to control people, lock them up, not heal them or integrate their perspectives. Meanwhile, our physical and social infrastructure, our caring for each other, grow weaker and millions of people fall into the system’s cracks.
Yin, yang, immunity, and society
Are immune diseases a metaphor for our social problems, or are they the same disease at different levels? According to the book Treating Autoimmune Disease with Chinese Medicine, by Wanzhou Hou MD et al, autoimmune disease is caused by a deficiency of yin energy, one of the two great forces that make up the world. Yin is associated with cool, damp, intuitive, dark, restful, passive, nurturing, gentle, female characteristics. The energy of protection and control is called yang energy. Yang is associated with maleness, hardness, heat, brightness, logic, activity, and dominance. We need both yin and yang in our lives and societies, but when we have too much of one, we’re out of balance and will get sick. Right now, much of the world is run by people with an excess of yang and no visible signs of yin energy at all.
We are starving for lack of yin, the caring, generative energy. On the physical level, resources for preservation and repair of water, transportation, and electrical systems keep shrinking. Bridges collapse; drinking water becomes toxic. On the human level, millions of people now sleep in the streets, while housing is held vacant by speculators. Efforts to feed and comfort homeless people and others in need are increasingly inadequate and in many cases illegal.
How excessively yang are we? The US Federal government has 16 separate “intelligence” agencies monitoring us, to ‘keep us safe.’ According to the Census of Law Enforcement Officers, 70 different Federal agencies have armed officers working for them, a total of about 120,000 full-time armed agents. The National Security Agency (NSA) gathers most online communications and phone conversations Americans make, for our own good, of course.
We have become a warfare state and a police state. The police kill over 1200 Americans every year. Millions are imprisoned to “protect society,” an incarceration rate seen nowhere else in the world, which devastates the communities who suffer it. A less yang-dominated society would keep most of those people free with supervision and support. The military maintains nearly 800 bases in other countries, trying to control the world, sapping resources and making enemies everywhere. (In comparison, the rest of the world’s countries combined have a total of fewer than 50 bases in each other’s territory.)
Society needs to get its yin back. Rather than seeking world dominance, a goal the US power establishment openly seeks, we need to get along with other countries. Instead of flooding our cities with police, we could fix infrastructure, nurture each other, build connection between groups instead of hostility. Only a severely yin deficient, safety-obsessed society would build more prisons while water systems are contaminated and bridges fall apart.
What Would Lao-Tzu Do?
The concept of Yin/Yang grew out of Taoism, the Chinese philosophy that prioritizes balance as the first key to good health and ordered societies. Founder Lao-Tzu and followers highlighted the importance of yin energy and female values, in contrast to the dominant patriarchal philosophies of the time such as Confucianism, or to the ones we live with now.
Taoist practitioner Elizabeth Reininger wrote, “The Dao De Jing — the primary scripture of Taoism — promotes the cultivation of qualities which modern society generally assign to women.” But “there is equality between the masculine and the feminine. They are understood to be two sides of the same coin: one could not exist without the other.” It’s not about gender or feminism, but about balance. Could balancing yin and yang help heal our society?
On her web site Rewireme.com, Chinese medicine practitioner Rose Caiola writes, “Stalking, abuse, rape, unequal treatment, paternalism of all kinds, imperialism, and colonialism are expressions of excessive yang energy used against a group that is seen as weaker….Yin is the perfect counterbalance to yang energy. Cool and deep, like a river of calm, yin thwarts the tendency of yang to keep going until only cinders are left.”
At the individual level, acupuncturists spend a lot of time building yin energy. Courtney Hill LAc advises practices like sleeping more, keeping warm, not working too much, limiting screen and cell phone time, hydrating, eating more fats like avocados and nuts. Go slow, spend time in Nature, and do other things you can see on her site Window of Heaven Acupuncture.
But how does that work on a social level? Eating more nuts probably won’t bring our society into balance. So, what would?
Well, female is yin, so having more women in positions of power should help. But most female leaders we’ve had recently haven’t improved things much, have they? In fact, American officials like Victoria Nuland, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice and Samantha Power have promoted wars as enthusiastically and catastrophically as any man. It seems plugging a few women into a massively yang, patriarchal power structure is more likely to change the women than to change the structure.
But imagine if all positions of leadership were held by women. Systems and structures and the entire economy would have to change radically, wouldn’t they? The way things are now wouldn’t even make sense. This doesn’t seem possible, however, and we have little evidence it would do much good if it happened, though a few leaders like New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Adern and US representative Tulsi Gabbard seem to be going that hopeful direction.
Other than men handing social control over to women, are there other ways a society can become more yin? Chinese medicine teaches that if we don’t, the world will restore our yinyang balance for us, and it won’t be pretty. They say that at their extremes, yin and yang turn onto their opposites. In a human body, a person who gets too cold and too weak (yin), may get an infection, develop a fever and become very hot (yang.) A person who is always angry, with high blood pressure (yang) may suffer a heart attack or stroke and become pale, weak, and passive.
In recent history, some very yang societies have gone bust (yin) and after a long recovery period, become much healthier. Think Nazi Germany, which tried to conquer the world, was destroyed, and is now one of the most successful societies on Earth. The same collapse and transformation will inevitably happen to the United States, though it may take the whole world down with it.
It may be possible for a society to back away from extreme yang without collapsing, but we’d have to really want to. We’d have to elect a lot of women, and we’d have to embrace yin in everything we do, striving to bring ourselves into balance. Let’s try.