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Heavenly Rest:  The UN Pays a Holiday Health Visit, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Dec


We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.  Kurt Vonnegut

Surgeons can cut out everything except cause.  Herbert M. Shelton

Extreme violence has a way of preventing us from seeing the interests it serves.  Naomi Klein

A sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ. John Steinbeck

If you would live long, open your heart.  Bulgarian saying

On the Sunday before Christmas I am staring at my worn and trusted crèche scene, a holy family “guarded” in this instance by replicas of cats and hippos and camels as well as by the more traditional barn animals.  For me, this scene represents a brief respite in a season that seems to have followed our cultures off a cliff of sorts – trading in the expectation of “heavenly rest” for the expectation that what “really matters” will magically appear at our front door or under a decorated tree.

Except that magic is at a premium.  I walked for over a mile yesterday down Broadway between rendezvous with good friends, past the high-end stores north of Canal Street before turning east towards the vegetable markets that line several of the streets of Chinatown.  The streets were packed.  The winds were howling. The car horns were blaring.  Children were in the midst of emotional meltdowns. The looks on the faces of most of the people I passed stretched beyond the usual wary impatience that characterizes so many in this city so much of the time.  This was stress of a different order, or so it seemed, the stress that accompanies the determination to make Christmas “matter” for someone at least, to make one last push through the crowded streets, through the racks of clothes and toy bins, through the long check-out lines, to satisfy an opaque longing that has everything to do with advertisers and virtually nothing to do with the message in the manger.

People in this city really do seem unhappy much of the time –and I would often add myself to their numbers– but especially so in this “joyous holiday season.”  It is though we have lifted a bandage covering the wounds of the year only to discover that the infection is worse than we imagined, that we are less healthy in mind, body and spirit than we ourselves, and our bartenders, therapists, pharmacists and yoga teachers, have allowed us to believe.

One verse of a well-known Christmas Carol ends with “sleep in heavenly peace.”  For too many of us, sleep in any form has become a virtual luxury, a deficit that directly and at times severely impacts the quality of our lives including the depth of our compassionate and active engagement with the world.  Our stressful societies have created for us a kind of double-whammy – distractions by day and restlessness by night.  We have become addicted to bombardment from outside ourselves and increasingly oblivious to the toll this is taking on our inner resources.

Regardless of our political affiliations or religious dispositions, we know that things are not right.  Too many of us work too hard to sustain lives that yield too few joys.  Too many of us cover our sorrows and anxieties with substances and diversions that are about as effective as painting a bathtub with watercolor. We fret about the “state of the world,” even lament the blood that occasionally appears on our collective hands, but soldier on as though the contents of the next smiley Amazon Box will heal what ails us, will restore our serially damaged relationship between longing and gratitude.

Institutions such as the United Nations have actually begun to take health issues a bit more seriously.   Here in New York, the UN has done important policy work on preparing for pandemic outbreaks as well as identifying remedial options for addressing the “non-communicable diseases” and even road hazards that continue to ravage communities and shorten life-spans.   Even the Security Council has gotten in on this act.   Just this past Friday, as one of its final contributions as an elected Council member, Sweden convened an excellent Arria Formula discussion focused on the most immediate implications of health for peace and security – issues of access to medical care in conflict zones as well as the growing danger to medical practitioners operating in such zones, persons and facilities increasingly targeted by state forces and non-state armed groups in fundamental violation of international law.

These are matters crucial to any and all efforts to preserve and promote the peace.  It’s bad enough that we aren’t more successful in preventing conflicts, in part through a clearer examination of the “interests they serve,” but to actively prevent persons already-devastated by armed violence from receiving the modicum of care available to them in conflict zones is beyond reprehensible.  Wars have rules, we are told, most of which are related to the treatment of non-combatants, but these rules are constantly in various states of violation.  As Swedish Ambassador Skoog put it, the gaps between “what is said and what is done” on health care access and the safety of health care workers continue to be large.  In this instance as in others, our “humane ideas” must come attached to more humane practices and, as France noted during the session, greater accountability for perpetrators of abuses.

Fulfilling this “sacred responsibility” to conflict-related casualties requires, as Peru’s Ambassador noted, a “homogenous approach to protection” with uniform standards that are both upheld and guaranteed by the Security Council and other UN member states.   Such guarantees are frustratingly hard to come by in this current phase of human existence.  As we were reminded by a panelist from South Sudan, the degree of difficult in field surgery is sent through the roof once the bombs resume falling.  Surgeons, it appears, “can cut out everything except the cause.”

We must, as many speakers noted, be more attentive to the needs and resources of those who make such sacrifices to bind together those who have been maimed by violence in its many facets.  But genuine healing is even more comprehensive than the bombs we prevent, the destruction averted, the injuries avoided, even by eliminating the trauma that impacts confidence in life, including the confidence to seek out treatment.  It is also a function of getting our institutions right, of making certain that we are doing what we can to optimize our performance in the world, in part by insisting on more healthfully engaged colleagues. The UN itself still has things to learn in this regard.

We must take our collective health more seriously, in all its dimensions.  Our “sad souls” and the things we do to cover that sadness are collectively doing us in, making us more “cranky” than we need to be, isolating us socially and spiritually, but also shutting down our practical empathy for others – the needy in our immediate midst, the migrants at our borders, the victims of our thoughtless policy choices, those whose bodies have been mangled and psyches traumatized courtesy of our overly politicized and militarized international engagements.  We don’t need to be this way; we don’t need to bury our own wounds while simultaneously inflicting wounds on others.  Whatever you understand “human nature” to be, this isn’t an example.  This isn’t inevitable.

The call to the deeper health advocated here is not satisfied by going to the gym or swallowing our meds.  And it is not satisfied through pious calls to “take care of ourselves,” as though most of us actually know what that means. The health we would do well to seek instead, that indeed this season calls for, is a collective and comprehensive endeavor – a commitment to maintain and share in what Wendell Berry once called “the feast of creation,” a feast fully open for a time only to the few while impeded for the many by the artifacts of our often thoughtless predation.

Whether particularly religious or not, I wish each of you a portion of “heavenly rest” this season, a time of uninterrupted sleep, inspirational dreams, successful self-reflection and ultimately a renewed commitment to the health and well-being of others.  Rest assured that we will all sleep more soundly in a world of greater hospitality for refugees, an end to threats against health and humanitarian workers, the cessation of bombing raids and all indiscriminate killing –especially in the places where children live and learn –and far fewer, less intrusive, external distractions of all kinds.

May this soon come to pass