This morning, very early, I stood at my window and watched a man park his large lumber-delivery truck on a very steep hill. It’s a blind curve, too. He put down the stabilizers and climbed onto the roof of the cab to check how close the powerlines were to the giant motorized metal claw. (Answer: really f-ing close.) He jumped down and put out some orange cones, then got back up and started to unload the pallets of lumber with the giant metal arm.
I noticed he was smoking the whole time.*
And why not? Here you are, literally standing in the road alone, behind/on/next to your giant, heavy, fully-loaded lumber truck. Here you are, one inch from the powerlines. Here you are, jumping 5 feet off of the cab of your truck into a ditch.
Herbalism and “alternative healthcare” suffer from a common perception of being only for a certain type of person.
I hear a lot of talk within our community about making it more accessible. Accessible is often presented as making the products or care more affordable. That which stands between working class people and an herbalicious lifestyle is often seen as money. But is that it? **
Wellness advice, marketing and media seems to focus on certain people too. I often observe health writing , books, podcasts geared towards people with desk jobs–it’s not that anyone is purposefully excluding the working class. It’s that the people who are creating this content are DOING SO at a desk, and their writing and, often, their whole life experience reflects this. We have a whole class of people today who are totally protected from daily experiences of workplace danger and elemental hardship, from childhood to death.
Do we, in order to break down some barriers, need to also remember how the social determinants of health shape our individual and collective attitudes around self-care? Do we need to consider how herbalists are presenting ideas about wellness, how we talk about it, how we view health disparities? Whose face represents us? It may not be someone’s current income that determines their attitudes about health. (For example, a lineman is doing blue collar work but could be earning more than a desk-based worker.) It may be, for example, that doing dangerous work creates a different feeling about health and mortality compared to doing a desk job. It may be that simple pleasures like smoking, even if we know they could harm us eventually, pale in comparison to working on live wires. It may be that we don’t actually expect to live long enough to deal with the consequences.
So what if it’s not just the money that determines our choices but our values, the IDEAS around health and wellness that we have been forming our whole lives, that come from our family, our friends, our co-workers, our community and the media we consume. We all have a lens through which we see our selves and the world, and this lens is shaped by many factors, including class.
Our state of health doesn’t occur in isolation. History of choices create a target audience. Our behaviors occur on a continuum, and in a context. When we are exposed to very real hazards every day, we may not give a shit about gluten, about emotional release, about our posterior chains. We may just be relieved when our boat pulls back in, when we don’t get run over or impaled or beaten to death. Or if we are actually interested in creating change, we may get so much negative social pressure from those around us that we give up. We may be unable to find a practitioner that feels welcoming or some writing that we believe speaks to people like us. We may have the money to spend on a tincture, but feel repelled by the way it is presented.***
So basically health decisions don’t occur in a vacuum, and our outreach should not occur in a vacuum either. We have to live in the web of interconnectedness, and take a systems approach to improving health disparities. Ultimately it is possible for working class people to thrive when we feel supported and integrated and heard, even in the face of work and life that tries to chew us up and spit us out. This is empowerment– NOT someone charging in and saving people from themselves but a community giving people the tools to create change.
Leadership from within can help create shifts in the values and behaviors that improve health outcomes. This includes understanding that risk does not look the same to everyone. To me, making these shifts is about breaking cycles that keep us in one place and building bridges that let us cross to another. I have observed amongst beloved working class family and friends a certain air of capableness and sturdiness that just crumbles into brokenness over time, and I do believe that this is not entirely inevitable.
So our challenge is: how to make our ideas about herbalism and wellness approachable while still respecting the dignity and intelligence of our brothers and sisters who are doing dangerous work every day, grinding away in all kinds of weather, getting up with the sun and coming home in need of support. How can we help transform that capable strength and youthful resilience into a lifelong wellness, physically and mentally?
Perhaps seeing our place amongst a lineage of survivors is a start, coming at this work from a place of deep respect for our brothers and sisters and the work they do, a willingness to start from a harm reduction model and listening. Lots of listening.
*please note that I am merely observing this smoking, and judging the behavior is NOT my intent.
**Not to say it’s never about money, of course.
***I’m over-using we because I identify with both herbalists and working class persons.