The canary in the coal mine had its literal origins in the mining industry. In order to test for toxic gases, miners would lower a caged canary into a mine shaft. Bringing up a dead songbird meant humans wouldn’t be descending that shaft. The metaphor remains apt because, even today, some of us are the canaries–generally women and girls, many of whom don’t realize that via their extraordinary sensitivity they’re our sentinels for existing and new environmental crises imperceptible to the rest of us.
I think it’s absolutely no coincidence that the dozen or so sibyls from ancient civilizations, “uttering things not to be laughed at” (as Heraclitus wrote in the 5th century BC), were all women. In those times, people worshipped the sibyls for their uncommon wisdom. But by the Middle Ages they were burning them as witches.
We should be thankful there’s no shortage of sibyls/human canaries among us even now. Modern-day canaries who are aware of their skills often are quite private about their observations, rightfully fearful that doctors might label them as hypochondriacs or neurotic. Having seen many of these canaries over the years, the very first thing I’ll say to a patient who describes, for example, feeling ill when she drives near a power station is that I believe her, that it’s wrongheaded to assume everyone’s sense of smell, color, taste, touch, and intuition is exactly like everyone else’s.
To understand what’s happening here, consider the neurotransmitter serotonin, the ubiquitous feel-good brain chemical that acts as our stress-buffering system. A woman’s stress-buffering level is generally about one-quarter that of a man’s. I personally “feel” absolutely nothing driving past an electric power station. On the other hand, my stress buffer is four times that of the woman patient sitting across from me. If we were to measure the serotonin levels of all women on the planet, we’d find the bottom third are likely so extremely sensitive to stressors of a most subtle nature that they are, as one canary described a bad day, like walking open wounds in a world made of salt.
These canaries are the people who, when free of stress, are highly intuitive, can “feel” energies, and are extraordinarily sensitive to colors, textures, and sensations. Artists, writers, musicians, and poets of both genders generally fall into this group as well. These are the people reporting conditions such as multiple chemical sensitivities, the ones who first filed lawsuits for sick building syndrome, and the group that experiences side effects from even the lowest doses of prescription drugs. Because of their poor buffering system, canaries under relentless stress will develop depression and anxiety and stress-induced conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic headaches, and adrenal and thyroid gland exhaustion.
Facing a male-dominated and often hostile medical profession, when canaries seek help they’re frequently written off as neurotics and hypochondriacs, sent to psychiatrists, diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and prescribed antidepressants. Ironically, as the serotonin-raising antidepressants boost their stress buffer the “canary insights” vanish and both patient (sadly) and physician (self-righteously) conclude the symptoms must have been driven by depression all along. This article from webmd.com comments on the “controversial nature” of multiple chemical sensitivities, its female predominance, and the use of SSRI antidepressants. Read it to see how mainstream medicine struggles with such a concept.
Your health and our planet’s in sync
I decided to write about the idea of canaries and sensitivities because I’ve been reading Dr. Keith Berndtson’s recently published book Seek Wisdom. Dr. B is an integrative physician practicing in suburban Chicago who for many years has been fascinated by the larger philosophic implications of both human and planetary health. Right up front, let me warn prospective readers that Seek Wisdom is a challenging book, not to be flipped through casually as you sit poolside. Read this one holding a pen, not a pina colada. You’ll need to deal with philosophical references, from the ancient Greeks and the Bible through Immanuel Kant, David Hume, George Santayana, Paul Tillich, and others.
The premise of Seek Wisdom is that your good health or chronic illness parallels mightily the health and illness of our planet. Berndtson is not the first physician-philosopher to point out this sympathy between the small and the large. Others have commented on the idea that both our arteries and rivers carry environmental toxins. On a large scale, these toxins decimate wildlife and destroy landscapes. In smaller relief, they alter our immunity, bring us new diseases (West Nile, Lyme, Ebola), and increase our susceptibility to cancer.
Our Earth is likely developing its own unique version of depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue. In other words, our willingness to allow the slow death of our planet will slowly kill us off as well.
The wisdom of Seek Wisdom is this
Only a fully integrative approach to an individual’s health and healing combined with an integrative approach to the stewardship of our planet can save the situation. For the individual, a practitioner of integrative medicine (who can be an MD, osteopath, chiropractor, acupuncturist, herbalist, homeopath, or energy healer) will work with the arc of your life to develop an understanding of why your chronic illness developed. Then she’ll explain and offer lifestyle changes that will enhance personal self-healing.
For our Earth, Dr B imagines an “integrative planetary steward” who will pay careful heed to our sibyls–our precious canaries–and instead of prescribing Prozac will honor their wisdom on how to clean our air and water, turn the volume down on our wasteful lifestyles, and leave the forests alone.
To you canaries out there–you who feel colors and sounds, subtle barometric pressure shifts, electricity from power lines, and poisons from sick buildings, you who can read the energies of a person, place, or inanimate object, you who’ve been aware of your intuitive skills since childhood–don’t under any circumstances seek medical attention from a conventional, mainstream physician to “treat” your gifts. Remember what they did to those sibyls who lasted until the Middle Ages.
David Edelberg, MD
P.S. The Teacher’s Union Strike brings many challenges to families. As many of you know, I have been on the Board of Directors of Facets and the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival for decades. To help families and to keep children from sitting in front of the TV all day long, Facets is offering a Children’s Film Immersion Workshop. Screening some of the best non-violent, non-sexist children’s films from around the world, the next few days (until the strike is over) can be a great experience for your child. You can enroll your child on any day. Click here for details.