Preventing the Downstream Effects

Posted 12.07.2015

During a long walk on Saturday, I was listening to Krista Tippet’s podcast, On Being. In this episode, she was moderating a panel discussion on The Evolution of Medicine with Mark Hyman, James Gordon and Penny George.  If you are interested in or concerned about the health and well-being of yourself and those you care about, I strongly recommend listening to the conversation. It’s eye-opening, paradigm-shifting and will likely inspire you to take action in some positive way.

It’s that last point about taking action that has had me deep in thought over the past couple of days. In his summary remarks at the end of the conversation, Dr. Hyman said that when it comes to solving the problem of chronic illness, “we’re dealing with the downstream effects instead of the causes.” He went on to say that in terms of creating the space for transformative changes in health and well-being, “It has to happen very locally – as local as your own kitchen, your own company or workplace, your school – it can be a very small space that it starts in but it ripples out.” I think Hyman’s prescription for creating healthy lives has applications far beyond medicine.

A few weeks ago, I wrote here about trying to sort through the thought process that led to the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris. Now, just three weeks after the Paris attacks, we’ve had a radicalized married couple inspired by ISIS kill and injure dozens of social service workers at the San Bernardino center where the husband worked. The day after the San Bernardino attacks, USA Today reported that after months of bombing ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. Air Force is about to run out of bombs.

Don’t get me wrong; I think the US and its allies have to take the fight to ISIS. We’re behind the curve in dealing with the threat it poses and now have to address the downstream effects of that. As San Bernardino shows, though, more bombing won’t be enough. As a society and members of a global community, we also have to address the causes of radicalization. In the New York Times today, four experts with very different perspectives offer their ideas on how to prevent people from adopting a radical path. Their answers involve creating greater economic equality and opportunity, inter and intra-faith dialogue and cultural exchange, sharing the stories of those disillusioned after following the radical path, and reexamining policies that marginalize segments of society. All of their suggestions more or less focus on addressing the cause as much as the effect. And, like Dr. Hyman’s prescription, I think they have applications that extend beyond the current threat posed by ISIS.

Health and well-being means a lot more than taking care of the physical body. It encompasses mental, relational and spiritual health. It encompasses community and societal health. It requires addressing cause at least as much as downstream effect. If we want to live in a healthy world, we must insist that our elected representatives and public servants focus on both cause and effect. We can set the example for them by following that same principle in our own lives.