Harry Hamilton

Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Call for Cultural Understanding

by Harry Hamilton


As I write this essay, Muslims all over the world are protesting, sometimes violently, the publication of what they see as offensive cartoons in the European press. Tensions between Jews and Palestinians are at frightening levels, even by the standards of that heartbreaking relationship, and various ethnic groups from Britain to Sudan seem trapped in conflict. So in thinking of this book’s lessons, I find it impossible not to consider the broad range of cultural conflicts shoving each other across television screens around the clock and to wonder if these conflicts have anything in common: Does an unfortunate Hmong child’s medical treatment in California have any commonalities with a suicide bombing in Baghdad? Is there any relationship between a suburb’s efforts to control its newly-arrived Mexican neighbors and genocide in Sudan? Does a neo-Nazi rally in Orlando share anything with an anti-American march in Tehran? While these clashes of culture differ in magnitude, consequences, and content (variously emphasizing politics, ethnicity, nationality, economics, religion, etc.), they may have more in common than we might readily see or willingly accept. Indeed, the questions surrounding immigrant assimilation into American culture may have salience wherever conflict arises between the many different stories humans tell about “their people” and their place in the cosmos.

So rather than ask ourselves for whom cultural assimilation is desirable or possible—for the Hmong with a sick child in California, the Mexican immigrant selling burgers and fries in a Birmingham suburb, or the Pakistani cabbie in Manhattan—perhaps we should ask ourselves for whom assimilation is relevant? And since assimilation implies a necessity for understanding culture, the still more important question may be: for whom is cross-cultural understanding important? Indeed, in a world where cultures are continuously mixing and mingling, mutual understanding may now be essential for the peaceful perpetuation of the species. There may have been a time in the human experience when people could be indifferent to, ignorant of, or hostile toward the beliefs and values of others without inviting disastrous consequences, but that time is not now.

Given today’s level of contact between people of different and often conflicting worldviews, it is imperative that we understand the importance of culture to humankind and the power of meaning in human affairs. For whatever else it may involve, culture contains the stories that are the source of our meaning. Thus, when doctors expect a Hmong family to disregard their own medical (i.e. cultural) traditions (and vice versa), they are not just asking for a change in behavior, they are asking for a rejection of at least some of the very beliefs that give them meaning, for voluntary abandonment of the stories that anchor them in an infinite cosmos. To jettison one’s cherished beliefs is to invite chaos, to court what Ernest Becker called our insignificance, and human beings have demonstrated time and again that they do not readily embrace the possibility of their own lack of significance in the grand scheme of things. Whether one is an American politician, a Danish cartoonist, an Israeli settler or a Hmong mother, the drive to hold on to the beliefs that bring substance to the void and order to ultimate chaos can be overwhelming. Indeed, so much so that there is a seemingly endless store of human beings willing, if not eager, to destroy themselves and others to assure perpetuation of their story, to somehow assert their version of life’s meaning and secure a place for themselves and their co-believers in the cosmos.

How then do we reconcile our many competing stories about the nature of the universe without condemning each other to meaninglessness? How do we hold on to our own meaning without destroying what anchors another? In short, how do we save a Hmong child’s life without killing its family’s soul? The answer may be simple; the execution nearly impossible. Indeed, the answer may be no more complicated than that of Dr. Fife on why he did not impose conventional medical practices on Hmong women. Fadiman tells us that when asked this question he simply responded, “It’s their body.” Or it may be as commonsensical as Sukey Waller’s resolution to avoid cultural faux pas when approaching the Hmong by reminding herself: “Before I do anything I ask, Is it okay?” Such openness may not always produce the outcome one desires, but it is a good course for avoiding unnecessary harm, both to oneself and to others, and may be a critical, if not absolutely essential, first step toward reconciliation of our many seemingly irreconcilable beliefs.

Buried in the simple but respectful attitude of Dr. Fife and Ms. Waller may be the answer to our dilemma: a way to honor the beliefs of others without compromising our own. For in their attitude lies a belief in our common humanity, a belief that the desire for respect is universal, no matter how different we may seem or how contrary we may sometimes behave. As long as our story includes a presumption of our common humanity we must respect the dignity of others or we violate the very thing that anchors us. To treat others as somehow less than human would then diminish our own humanity.

Regrettably, we humans have had a poor record at sustaining the primacy of this particular bit of faith. That is, many wise men and women over the years have told us what we must do to overcome human conflict, but few of us have been able to follow through on their advice. Were we better at doing so there might be fewer tragedies like that of the Lees and MCMC. Indeed, perhaps the most tragic lesson in this story of multiple tragedies is that here at the start of a new millennium the path to cultural understanding and harmony may rest in a truth as easily grasped as the golden rule, but no more easily implemented today than when that simple sentiment was first uttered so long ago.