Americans have traditionally celebrated the diversity of cultures that comprises the United States. Despite some reservations, much of the country still believes that the amalgamation of different ethnicities contributes to the richness of American culture.
The merging of cultures in the United States has also given rise to conflicts and collisions, as established concepts are confronted and challenged. New belief systems, often developed over centuries, have already redefined prevailing Western cultural concepts.
This paper examines how prevailing Western cultural concepts regarding the soul and spirituality, gender and healing have been challenged and redefined by a growing awareness of cultural alternatives. Some of these concepts, such as gender, were redefined largely within an American context. Many, such as healing and spirituality, have been influenced by Eastern and African cultures and religions.
The first part of the paper looks at the various cultural meanings of healing, as practiced by the Hmong people of Southeast Asia and the Daraga people of Western Africa. It examines how these cultures have challenged Western medicine's traditional focus on the body only. In the second part, the paper examines the various cultural concepts of religion and spirituality, and how the growing pluralism of definitions is a challenge for hegemonic Christianity.
In the conclusion, the paper examines how these multiplicities of viewpoints have affected and broadened my own value system, giving an emphasis on the conflicting cultural concepts regarding gender and sports.
Healing and medicine
One of the most contentious areas of such cultural collisions involves medicine. Such conflicts are not new, as physicians have already run into conflict with many American religious groups such as the Scientologists and the Jehovah's Witnesses, who prohibit blood transfusions. In a case involving a child, however, a court ruled in 1943 that the state had a right to impose life-saving medical treatment, even if the said treatment conflicts with the family's religion (Fadiman 80).
Since the 1940s, however, physicians, scientists and the general public have begun to understand how other cultures may have radically-different ideas about the causes of illness and disease.
The growing diversity of the population now requires physicians and healthcare workers a heightened cultural awareness, to become more understanding of the multitude of health traditions that exist around the world and, increasingly, in the country.
In the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman chronicles the sad story of Lia, a Hmong girl stricken with epilepsy. To her physicians, Lia's illness is defined in physical and chemical terms. The medical explanation of the child's epilepsy points to an "electrochemical storm" caused by "misfiring of aberrant brain cells" (Fadiman 28).
Lia's parents, however, have a distinct explanatory model for their daughter's illness. The epilepsy was caused when a startled Lia's soul fled her body and became lost. Lia's soul had fallen prey to a thieving dab, a malevolent spirit. Therefore, Lia's soul was trapped outside her body, which remained rooted to the ground. Among the symptoms of this soul loss are fainting, rolling eyes and jerking limbs - which are also the classic symbols of a seizure that accompanies epilepsy (20).
The cultural differences do not stop at the divergent causes of the illness. In Western society, epilepsy is considered a disability or an obstacle to be overcome. Western parents whose children are diagnosed with epilepsy will most likely react with dismay and concern. They would be worried that their child has a serious and potentially dangerous condition.
In contrast, Lia's parents, like many Hmong people, regard epilepsy with ambivalence. At the very least, their concern was also tinged with a little pride. Many Hmong would even consider epilepsy to be an illness of distinction. Epileptic seizures are often seen as trances, where the affected person has "the power to perceive things other people cannot see" (Fadiman 21). People who wielded such power were therefore considered divine, giving them the ability to become great healers themselves.
Thus, Lia's physicians viewed the Hmong girl as a child with a serious and potentially disabling disease. This engenders a sympathetic view, one that regards Lia as a person to be healed and cared for. For the Hmong people, however, Lia is already "a person of consequence" (Fadiman 21).
The ability to see the unseen means she has been chosen to act as a host to a "healing spirit." This means that the child already has the capacity to become a great healer.
Throughout the book, Fadiman chronicles these opposing worldviews with rich detail and compassion. Fadiman locates the problems regarding Lia's epilepsy in the failure of both sides to understand what each was trying to do. Lia's parents violated several precepts of Western medicine, such as refusing medical treatment and purposely giving their daughter improper dosages of medicine. Lia's well-meaning physicians, however, also unknowingly violated several important tenets of Hmong culture, such as their discussions of Lia's possible death.
In chronicling these opposing viewpoints, Fadiman takes a cultural relativist view that there are no heroes and villains in this fight to treat Lia's illness. The problem was deeply-rooted in the divergent traditions regarding medicine and healing. As Lia's physician Neil Ernst observed, "it felt as if there was this layer or Saran Wrap...between us...we were reaching and we could kind of get into their area, but we couldn't touch them" (Fadiman 47-48).
In this case, the results of the divergent viewpoints were tragic. The parents would often delay seeking medical treatment for Lia and often did not administer her medication, for fear that the aloof American doctors wanted to steal their daughter's organs and further weaken her spirit. Some members of the medical staff regarded Lia's parents as stupid and ungrateful, who would hurt their own daughter out of ignorance. In the end, Lia suffered an infection on top of her epilepsy, rendering her in a vegetative comatose state.
In a way, Lia suffered a double loss of both her soul and the other possibilities of her life. It was a tragedy that could have perhaps been averted, had her caretakers been able to better understand one another.
Not every aspect of healing, however, engenders such cultural collisions. For example, Malidoma Patrice Some notes that the use of herbal medicines in indigenous African cultures greatly resembles Western pharmacology. In the indigenous world, plants have been traditionally used to treat diseases like dysentery and tuberculosis, as well as for purposes like birth control (Some 73). In fact, Western scientists have studied the healing effects of such plants in an effort to isolate their medicinal properties.
However, there is also an important cultural difference between indigenous African and Western pharmacology. In Africa, such medications are also used in conjunction with treating the person's whole being. Traditional Western medicine, on the other hand, remains squarely-focused on the physical body.
Like the Hmong, the indigenous Africans of Some's Dagara tribe viewed illness as more than just a physical disease. Instead, the physical symptoms of an illness were merely the aftermath. As Some writes, "illness is a physical manifestation of spiritual decay" (73).
This concept of illness is closely-rooted in an individual person's purpose, the "full realization of their innate gifts, and to have these gifts approved, acknowledged and confirmed" by the community (Some 27). The inability to perceive these gifts and understand one's purpose, or the purposeful denial of one's innate purpose, all result in a spiritual crisis. If the crisis is severe enough, it will manifest itself in a physical illness (Some 29).
In addition to healing the spirit, a commonality indigenous African tribes share with the Hmong, Some also discerns another important divergence between African and Western healing. In the Western world, medicine and illness are often treated as an individual experience. Patients are used to relying solely upon themselves and their physicians and caregivers to get them through the crisis. A lucky few have loved ones to share their struggle. For people in the West, individuality is the desired norm, giving rise to a tendency to view community as antithetical or even threatening (Some 91).
This prevailing view is challenged in Fadiman's account of Lia's epilepsy, where the successful treatment of the young Hmong child not only involved the medical staff and her parents but also a complex hierarchy of Hmong leaders and clan members.
Some's account provides further challenge by locating individual needs within a larger sense of community. Thus, in addition to healing the physical body, the indigenous Africans also place a premium on community. They understand that the general health and well-being of an individual are closely linked to their community (Some 22). As such, physical health could not be attained in a vacuum, isolated inside the sterile rooms of a hospital.
Both accounts take pains to present the conflicting cultural views in a balanced manner, as equally-valid in their own right. Some, with his African and Western background, is particularly qualified for the task of seeking bridges and commonalities between the two cultures. He further locates the key to bridging this gap in…