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Meaning, spirit and activism

Why meaning and spirit matters
It is hot and noisy in the make-do shack which 'A' shares with thee other young people, also from the country. He gets occasional casual work pushing the hand cart but it is hard find the energy to do more than just survive. It is hard to see the point of it all. Alcohol soothes the pain but also releases the anger; commonly it is 'E' and her kid who feel the brunt of his anger.
On the other side of the world, 'B' is driving his new motor cruiser to the quay for the launch. The cabin is the latest in luxury but he has had to take out a mortgage on the house and borrowed from the special account he has put aside to pay for the boys' education to pay for it. He doesn't mind working 11 hours a day, six days a week, if it means he can meet the needs of the family but it is all a bit risky with rising interest rates. The killer is the recent increase in land tax on the beach property. It wouldn't be so bad except that so much tax is directed to various do-gooder social engineering projects such as housing for so-called refugees and so-called 'aid' for other countries, most of which are corrupt.
In what sense is 'meaning' a determinant of health in these two cases? Can you describe other cases that you are familiar with where 'meaning' or 'meaninglessness' might help to understand the barriers to Health for all? How do people's health organisations work through these challenges? Where do you find meaning? Why are you an activist? Why/how do you keep going?
Meaning, spirit and health
Emotional and spiritual well-being are part of any holistic conception of health; they are important in their own right but they also shape physical health in many ways. It is evident that the conditions for emotional and spiritual well-being are in part shaped by factors in the wider cultural, political, economic environments.

  • Marx wrote about the alienation of workers when their labour is commodified and detached from any sense of work as gift (contribution to the other, contribution to the collective good).
  • The impact of violence and disaster has been described in many ways including the concept of traumatic stress.
  • The Whitehall studies have pointed to the role of hierarchy in shaping people's health and expectations.
  • The links between poverty, alienation and exclusion on violence and drug and alcohol misuse are further examples.

The people's health movement calls for proper attention to emotional and spiritual wellbeing as an important area of community health, as a domain where many determinants of physical health are derived and as a function of large scale political, cultural and economic factors such as oppression, poverty, exploitation, alienation and marginalisation.
These very general considerations are played out differently for different populations and in different times and places. For example, they affect men and women differently in many respects. They affect many indigenous communities who have been displaced and their resources expropriated.
Meaninglessness in the lives of the affluent middle classes (and aspirant middle classes) is just as potent a barrier to health for all as meaninglessness in the slums of the megacities. In this topic we will explore the role of emotional and spiritual well being; the factors which shape these dimensions and the strategies and practices of the health activist.
Learning objectives
Participants will:

  • develop the concepts and theories which we can speak about meaning (and meaninglessness) as a 'determinant of health' and the role of spiritual practice (including but not restricted to religious practice) in creating (or finding) meaning in our lives;
  • broaden the range of strategies and approaches upon which we may draw in confronting health issues which have a meaning and spirit dimension;
  • be more reflexive about their own existential uncertainties and about the practices which they deploy to give meaning to their lives and hold fast to values which are important to them;
  • be more reflexive about the spiritual (and like) practices of the people's health movement and the ways in which these generate meaning and provide guidance.

Julio Monsalvo (2005) Allegremia and health
David Legge (2007) Meaning, spirit, activism and commitment
Discussion questions
Case 1. Competitive individualist materialism as a determinant of health?

  • In what ways does competitive, individualist materialism impact on health?
  • What are the dynamics which reproduce competitive individualist materialism?
  • What can the PHM do to confront the negative impacts on health of CIM?

Case 2. What keeps me going?

    The seduction of the activist
  • disappointment, fatalism, withdrawal (to our private lives)
  • being diverted by the rewards of mainstream institutions (PHM as a 'good career move')
    Managing the seductions of activism
  • maintaining my commitment despite the disappointments and occasional envies
  • building disciplines into my life which help me to manage the seductions and maintain my commitment
  • building a culture into our collective practice which help us collectively to manage the seductions and maintain our commitment

Assignment topics
As above
This topic developed by Julio Monsalves and David Legge with input from Sally Kingsland, Deb Gleeson, Bill Genat and Gillian Lang.