By Zainab Amadahy
Reviewed by May Lui
This is a remarkable book that aims to widen the reader’s understanding of paradigms such as thinking in binaries, valuing the material over the relational, looking at sciences as superior to other forms of evidence, knowledge and practice, and the construction of the best ways to understand the world.
Amadahy describes how in the Western context, which we are all subject to in Canada and elsewhere, we’ve been taught to look at the world, and to understand the world, in particular ways. We are taught there are things called objectivity, measureable outcomes, and ways to predict the world and the people and creatures in it. There’s a certain desire for control that is overt, and covert, in such a worldview. This has consequences.
When people are taught that they are intact, separate and isolated individuals, then any injustice or oppression they experience is entirely their fault. Oppressive systems then go unchallenged, systems that were created and structured to benefit the few at the expense of the many, and we’re all taught to be fine with that. What happens when we imagine ourselves as interconnected? What happens when we look at our lives as affecting all that we’re in contact with, and are affected by everything in return? As a reader and learner, I continue to struggle with this concept.
An example the author uses is the classic “left brain” and “right brain” understanding. She describes the left brain as the mouse brain (this is the rational, linear, logical brain) and the right brain as the eagle brain (this is the creative, big picture brain). She describes how Western culture has been taught over and over again to value one side of the brain over the other. I think we can guess which one. She argues not to reverse this, but to see the strengths in both while also interrogating the binary framework that surrounds this worldview.
Amadahy is a big-picture thinker, and she incorporates various ways of thinking, including spirituality and Aboriginal ways of learning and living. She constantly asks that the reader look at our own biases and preconceived ways of thinking and understanding the world, opening up different possibilities. She aims not to convert or preach her views but to allow for openness to perceive the world in a way many of us haven’t experienced.
Another example is the idea of evolution, most often understood as “survival of the fittest”. This implies a built-in competitiveness both for humans and for all life-forms. Amadahy contrasts this with the Three Sisters teaching, which is about food the Haundenosaunee (Iroquois) have relied upon for hundreds of years: beans, corn and squash. The author describes how the growth and life cycle of each enhances the others and provides food. For example: “bean stems wind their way around cornstalks, stabilizing them, while enriching the soil with nitrogen. Squash vines remain close to the ground and shade emerging weeds, preventing their growth while trapping moisture in the soil,” (page 39).
Amadahy reframes animals hunting other animals for food not as an example of competition, but as a reality that “even death and decay serve to nurture new life,” (page 39).
The book also discusses the idea of the placebo effect. This is something done in research testing that gives one group medication, or in the example used on page 55, knee surgery on people experiencing arthritis. Two groups received the surgery; one group did not, but had incisions, stitches and the same post-operation treatment as the other groups. The group that did not have surgery, but thought they had, recovered at the same rate as the other groups. Medical science is documenting more and more of these examples.
Amadahy also described the “nocebo” affect, the opposite of the placebo effect. This is a phenomenon in which nothing is actually wrong, but the belief that something is harmful, such as a harmless plant that looks like poison ivy, in the example in the book, that’s rubbed on people’s skin, and rashes develop. The mind is a powerful thing.
It’s pretty well understood these days (by medical science) that stress has an effect on our bodies and our mental health. But this was not always the case. Amadahy frames this as Western science slowly catching up to the learnings of thousands of years of Indigenous healing. Ironically, such healings don’t get mainstream legitimacy until such validation occurs.
The book describes a number of studies that indicated links between Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and stress. During stress the fight/flight/freeze response is activated, there’s a rise in adrenaline, among other chemicals in our bodies, and our heart rate becomes erratic, or incoherent. This stress response can be activated not just by something happening in the moment, but even just the thought or memory of something stressful.
And the reverse is true, when our heart rates are coherent. When we feel gratitude, compassion, etc. other chemicals are released such as oxytocin. Again, the memory or the thought of this feeling, or observing someone else, can bring this state and these chemicals to our bodies.
Amadahy wrote this book, to a great extent, for activists, particularly non-Indigenous activists of the white leftist Canadian tradition. Having been raised and operating my activist life mostly within this definition, I felt the relevance of the book’s teachings, even as I resisted some of them. She sprinkles references to activists throughout the book, but concentrates more fully and directly on activists and unhealthy dynamics in activism in the later chapters. Many of the topics she raises resonated for me.
For example, the crisis state. Any activist will recognize this. Amadahy is clear that while there are crises that need to be responded to, many groups operate from this crisis state all the time. She asks us to remember the HRV research on stress and asks us a deeper question: how can activism, with the intent of improving the world, be successful if everything originates from a highly stressed, anxious and negative place?
The author also critiques the structures of many activist groups and organizations, structures that for the most part exclude Aboriginal voices and learnings, and in fact duplicate the power structures that activists work against. As an anti-racist activist, I completely agree with this.
“It would do some activists… a world of good if they recalled that feeling separate, unconnected and superior in some way is what got our world into the mess it’s in,” (page 95).
The last point that I wanted to mention is something that I have pondered myself for a number of years. Activism is most often thought of as marches and public protests. Amadahy reminds us that this form of protest is one of many, and that if we want to create a better world, how do we imagine that happening if we don’t actually try to do that now, within the oppressive world? Why aren’t community gardens, or community-run food programs held to the same level of activism?
Ultimately the book leaves me asking many more questions. It stimulates ideas for many discussions for the future, not to be pondered alone, but in community:
“I want to be nurturing life when I go down in struggle. I want nurturing life to be my struggle,” (page 145).
May blogs at maysie.ca, ranting and raving at any and all injusticesand uses the f-bomb regularly.
She’s been published in the Toronto Star, Fireweed Magazine, Siren Magazine, in the anthology With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, at section15.ca and rabble.ca. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org