I recently had the honor of giving a TED talk in Austin, Texas, which revolved around the spiritual needs of women. I found many of my answers in John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath.
Most people don’t believe me when I tell them that this is the most important book I read in medical school. How could classic American literature give me a window into women’s health? Steinbeck’s story revolves around the consequences of not nurturing Mother Earth, and it paints a very clear picture, I believe, of what happens when women, the nurturers of humanity, forget how to nurture themselves.
The 1930’s is known as the “Dirty 30’s” because of the raging dust storms that ravaged much of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. A decade of deep plowing by farmers had displaced the native grasses that kept the topsoil in place. With the grass gone and the increased use of heavy, mechanized farm equipment, the land was fully exposed to the elements, degrading quickly and losing all of its life-giving power. When a severe drought came, the un-anchored topsoil dried out and became as fine as powder, taking to the air as the winds whipped across the open plains. What was once living, nutrient rich soil became useless dirt, devoid of any nourishing or nurturing capabilities. Starvation quickly ensued for both man and animal in this area of the country. It’s this despair that Steinbeck’s characters were trying to escape.
Inside all of us, there is grassland that needs tending with the greatest of care. It’s a spiritual ecosystem that’s completely self-contained and self-supporting, so long as we know how to farm it the right way. When we don’t have the proper tools to nurture it, the soil of our soul becomes exposed to the damaging effects of our negative life experiences. It dries up, loses its nourishing capabilities and blows away, leaving us completely ungrounded. How many people do you know who are flighty, scattered or addicted to drama? They’ve lost their resilience, the ability to nourish and nurture their soul through the ups and downs of life. Think of it this way: If lightning strikes the plains and burns thousands of acres, it only takes days before new shoots of green grass start poking through the ash. The grassland maintains its resilience and can recover from such a traumatic event because the underlying soil, which contains the nourishment for rejuvenation, was never disturbed by the surface damage. Such is how it is with the soul.
Some of us are never given the tools to get through life’s traumas. In a perfect world, it’s our parents who comfort us as children, teaching us how to self-regulate our emotions. Unfortunately, crying and anger aren’t always met with compassion, and so we learn how to repress our feelings to avoid the consequences. We teach our children—especially young girls—to be people pleasers from a very young age, choosing emotional responses that are agreeable rather than authentic.
Without proper modeling, it becomes impossible for us to navigate the difficulties of our adult lives—divorce, job loss, illness, or the death of a loved one. We can’t apply compassion, empathy, understanding, and non-judgment toward ourselves because we never learned how. Sure, we can stuff our emotions down and get on with life, but we still carry the emotional charge that’s poisoning the soil of our soul. Eventually, unresolved traumas deplete our soul’s nutrients—like innocence and understanding—and we end up living in a spiritual dustbowl of self-judgment, hopelessness, and cynicism.
Renowned psychologist Wilfred Bion called this kind of existence living in an uncontained state. Bion believed that elements of thought or emotion carry projective (male) or receptive (female) functions. If someone is projecting a powerful emotion like anger, his state is uncontained. He’s in need of someone who understands—who can receive that energy and contain it, completing an emotional cycle where each cancels the other out and equilibrium is restored. For Bion, the crux of his famous Container-Contained Theory is that psychic growth only happens when we can integrate this process within ourselves.
As adults, tens of millions of Americans are living in a perpetual state of uncontained emotion. Their soul-scape is completely barren and because they can’t nourish themselves internally, they rely on external sources—illicit drugs, psychotropic medications, food addictions, crime—to do it for them. It doesn’t matter what the mechanism is: It’s always false and its effect, temporary.
I believe it is uncontained emotion that holds the secret to healing all chronic diseases, especially for women. From an early age, parents inadvertently teach girls to deny their feelings in order to please others, and then the media convinces them to hate their bodies in subtle and insidious ways. Later in life, we put them in a catch-22: If they stay home to raise their children, they’re holding themselves back, but if they choose work, they’re absentee mothers. We’re constantly putting women up against standards they can’t possibly meet. When you can’t be the ideal wife, mother, girlfriend, teacher, cook, church volunteer, corporate executive and activist at 20 pounds below your healthy body weight, what’s left but to silently (and subconsciously) hate yourself because you’re not perfect?
I believe that this subtle, relentless, uncontained self-hatred is at the root of the autoimmune disease epidemic in women. How else would you personify a body that’s attacking itself as the enemy? The National Institute of Health estimates that 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease. Even more shocking is the fact that 75% of them are women. The disparity between men and women is even worse when you look at specific kinds of autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (10:1); Grave’s disease (7:1); lupus (9:1). The occurrence of autoimmune disease is so prevalent among women that a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2000 declared that total cases exceeded the 10th leading cause of death for all women, across all categories, between the ages of 15 and 64.
Bion and I would agree that the uncontained self-hatred that gives rise to autoimmune disease needs to be contained with self-love. The problem is that most of us were never taught how to love ourselves, or we have a distorted understanding of what it means. Love affects the body in profound ways, but it’s not enough just to receive it: We must be able to generate that energy within ourselves if we are to maintain our health. To achieve this, we can’t begin at self-love but at self-forgiveness—forgiveness for not being a certain body weight, beauty type, Mother of the Year, the perfect daughter, wife, or anything else. When women let themselves off the hook, they will acquiesce into a place of self-acceptance. It is only in acceptance that we learn what love is. When love is the nourishment we’re using to seed our soul, our lives become fertile in all areas again. There’s no need to fear the future because we know that so long as constant change is life’s nature, survival doesn’t go to the fittest, but to the most resilient—and resiliency always resides in the richest soil.”