In his book, “Healthy at 100: How You Can -- at any age -- Dramatically Increase Your Life Span and Your Health Span,” John Robbins reminds us that economic disparities impact all facets of life in ways that are very costly.
Robbins recalls the work of anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, who sought to understand why some cultures are basically peaceful and healthy while others are not; why women, children and the aged are treated well in some cultures and not in others and why some cultures are cooperative while others are competitive.
Benedict concluded that cultures, which she called synergistic, the ones which fell at one end of the continuum and offered rewards for behaviors that benefited the whole group and forbade behaviors harmful to the group tended to be peaceful and harmonious.
One example of such a culture is found in a Native American ceremony in where young children are showered with food, drink and clothing. Then the members of the tribe cry out, I am hungry, I am thirsty, I am cold. The children are led to distribute their gifts to others who are in need.
This game of sharing helps to teach the children to hold the needs of other members of their tribe to be equally as important as their own needs.
Benedict found another type of culture at the far end of the continuum which she called surly and nasty. In these cultures behaviors that benefit the individual at the expense of the whole are rewarded and those who amass great wealth are esteemed. She found the people in such societies to be paranoid, mean spirited, warlike and abusive toward women, children and the elderly. Members of such societies tend to see each other as competitors and at times as threats. Many of them are self-aggrandizing, insecure, suspicious and hostile. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very few.
Robbins says, history shows that wherever inequality of wealth distribution becomes extreme, people tend to become divided against one another and societies tend to spend less on public health, education and social safety nets. Everyone, whether they are haves or have nots, tend to become less trusting of their neighbors and less inclined to help others. The results are higher crime rates, increased violence and higher rates of heart disease, depression and many other debilitating and deadly ailments for both rich and poor.
Robbins goes on to ask, is it a coincidence that the countries ranked first and second in the world in terms of wealth equality (Japan and Sweden) are also ranked first and second in life expectancy? And is it a coincidence that the United States which ranks last among all industrialized countries in terms of wealth equality, now ranks nearly last in life expectancy?
A few days ago we witnessed another example of how well we can come together in our country when there is trouble as we pulled together during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and continue to do so to assist our fellow citizens during this time of trauma. But one cannot help but ponder how we might be led to see the value of caring for one another when there is no disaster.
Clearly the path we are choosing to travel these days is not benefitting us. We are not physically and spiritually well. Too many of our children are at risk. Our elderly are not treated with the respect they deserve and we rarely celebrate them.
The challenge lies before us. All of us need to think about the ways in which we can help to create the kind of country that reflects Benedict’s synergistic cultures. We could stand to have more examples of the behavior that we see during disasters as we embrace the weeks and months ahead. Our collective well-being is at stake.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. E-mail her at email@example.com.