The Shaman's Lesson of Worth
"Free" and "Health Care" Aren't Necessarily Good Together...
I was a starry-eyed first year resident when I met the old man, a Shaman (medicine man and spiritual advisor) to his Native tribe in the four corners area of New Mexico. It had long been my goal to study with such a healer and learn the "secrets" of the Shaman's ways. Now here I was, face-to-face with just such a One.
A young man came to see the Shaman about a health problem. From his appearance and description, I guessed him to be no more than twenty. He complained bitterly about the "strange sights" that he saw on occasion. By western standards, schizophrenia was a likely diagnosis. The young man clearly needed help. The Shaman told him that he would be available, but that a week-long ceremony would be necessary. Then the Shaman told him the cost. The young man shook his head dejectedly and left. I questioned the Shaman.
What was the fee for the ceremony, and why had the young man gone away without treatment? I wanted to know. The Shaman explained that the fees were approximately $6000 in western money, but that people paid in other means of exchange like goats, sheep, baskets, and other items. The man left because he did not have the required fee. Sensing that I was upset by this, the Shaman explained that the young man would return for treatment after he raised the necessary funds.
"But why," I wanted to know, "don't you help him now and let him pay later? Aren't there some people that are too poor to afford your services? Do you ever give your services away for free?" "Never," he assured me. Then the old man sat me down and carefully explained his stance.
"Health is a valuable commodity," he told me, looking to see if I agreed. I nodded. "Like other valuable commodities, the people who want it dearly enough will work to get it. As they work, they increase their appreciation of it's value. When I give a man a healing service without a fee, he associates 'free' with 'not valuable.' The potency of any treatment is not only in the treatment, but in the person's belief in it's value. When someone pays dearly for a ceremony, they show that they appreciate the value of my treatment. More importantly, they show themselves how much they value their health. A man who values his health will work hard to win it back, and he is more likely to recover." He paused to let me take his words in.
"But what if someone really can't afford your treatment?" I insisted. "People can always afford my ceremonies if they value their health. A poor man will recruit his family to help him raise the necessary funds. If he has no family, he will petition the community to help him raise the necessary funds. By doing this, he will not only value the ceremony he receives, but he will feel the support and good wishes of the community for his recovery. Anyone who truly wants to get well can always find a way to afford the healing ceremony." With that, the old man stood to indicate that we were through for the day.
In the years since, the Shaman's words have returned to haunt me. How many times have I heard people complain about the cost of supplements, or of my services, while they drive in a luxury car or S.U.V., eat out twice a week, own a vacation home in the mountains or at the beach, and subscribe to cable TV.? I believe that the old Shaman was right. The people who value their health will work to get it. They will pay to get it. And they will value it more dearly when it returns.