Geography begins at home

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Teaching and Learning and Caring Blog

EL PASO – Geography begins at home, with skin, with blood, with bones. We are road maps to our own accumulated histories, the places we have been, decisions we made. Check the blood: antibodies to things that didn’t kill us, vitamin deficiencies, rheumatoid factor, genetic markers, ancestral clues. Check inside with X-rays, ultrasound, MRI and CT scans: deformities, broken bones, pregnancy, slipped disc, torn cartilage, gallstones. The skin, the largest organ: a history of sun exposure, too much alcohol, acne, chickenpox, smallpox vaccinations in persons of a certain age, stretch marks, surgical scars. Our bodies are open books; no wonder we wear clothes and guard our medical records!

Where is Cheryl?  Cheryl is here at Gila Hot Springs. (Courtesy of Cheryl Howard)

Where is Cheryl? Cheryl is here at Gila Hot Springs. (Courtesy of Cheryl Howard)

The map of the world around us begins with our bodies. Each of us is here, the center of the rest of the world. However, we like to imagine that our bodies end with our skin, that there is a distinct boundary between us and the rest of the world. We would be mistaken though. We are more like rivers, flowing into other bodies, drying up and blowing hundreds of miles away, evaporating and becoming rain clouds, pouring down again and entering arroyos, aquifers, new streams, eventually oceans. We are more like roads into and out of cities, intersecting with other roads and going eventually in any direction. Even at the end of a road, there is a footpath into a desert, field or forest, or a driveway into a house and a back door out of it.

Who are we but the accumulation of experience, of memory, of the imprint of people and places on our lives? We breathe in the world around us, pure or polluted; we breathe out into the world, viral or not. Our sweat, our tears fall. Our children issue from us into the world. All the things we make and do enter the world. Our DNA litters the comb, the toothbrush, the carpet.  Diseases are spread…by air, by water, by bodily fluids, by boat, by plane. Love and hatred, peace and violence are spread similarly.

We tend to think that our selves end where our bodies end. I found that this idea was entrenched in the students who were enrolled in my medical sociology classes. We have been taught to believe that disease is located in individual bodies, regardless of the mode of transmission, and this belief extends to other conditions such as intelligence, criminality, manual dexterity, etc. But some illnesses and many personality traits are socially constructed and buttressed by social convention. I hope I have demonstrated, in so many ways, that we are much more connected to each other than most of us ever imagine. If we were more mindful of our effect on the world and others’ effects on us, perhaps we would be more careful in or thoughtful of our actions. I believe we would also devise new approaches in health care, international relations, education, and several other fields that would be produce better results than we currently achieve.

The sociologist C. Wright Mills pointed us in this direction in the 1960s when he distinguished between “personal troubles” and “public issues.” A personal trouble would be when only one individual has a particular problem. Mills used the example of unemployment. So, if one person does not have a job, it is his or her personal problem. We can imagine that that person might be poorly educated, lazy, or something. The solution to that person’s problem rests within the individual. However, if many people are unemployed that constitutes a public issue. When we perceive a problem as a public one, as opposed to a private one, we search for different solutions. Mills thought that society often mistook public issues as personal troubles, and thereby urged individuals to make their own adjustment to the status quo without acknowledging or fixing structural inequalities that produced the problems that many individuals collectively faced.

Geography begins at home, but it doesn’t end there.

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