It’s kind of ironic. We’re finally past all the end-of-the-world predictions and fears that had to do with the Mayan calendar, and now we’re hit with this flu epidemic. I haven’t heard any predictions that the flu is going to wipe out civilization as we know it, but I’ve read enough novels and watched enough disaster movies – where a medical research project goes awry, or a virulent strain of something-or-other gets out into the general public – that I’ve at least considered a “What if…?” scenario.

And then there are the gloom-and-doom prophets who always claim, in light of some natural or man-made disaster, that God is exacting his revenge on mankind, that we are all being punished for our sins and evil ways, and that we’d better repent and reform before it’s too late.

I’m not buying into any of these ideas, but I have to admit they’ve sent my thoughts in some interesting new directions. For instance, what if there’s a germ – no pun intended – of truth in them somewhere? Not in the sense that we’re being punished for our sins, or that this strain of the flu is the result of a deliberate plot to wipe us out. But in the sense that we may be contributing to the problem, and possibly in ways we’re not even aware of.

We do know that viruses responsible for the flu, and many other diseases, are spread by human contact. We know some of the ways this happens, and we know what we’re supposed to do to prevent them. But what if we were to find out that one of the causes of our physical ailments is the way we talk to and treat each other in our everyday encounters?

That’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. Verbal and emotional abuse can have devastating and long-term effects on their victims, even though the scars and injuries from them aren’t as obvious as those inflicted by physical abuse.  And the impatience, indifference, and intolerance that have become so prevalent in our society today are subtle symptoms of the type of behavior that can tear us down and wear us down physically and emotionally. If these things can damage our confidence and self-esteem, why not our immune systems? And wouldn’t that leave us more susceptible to the flu and other ailments?

Now here’s a question to ponder: If we WERE to find out there’s a cause and effect between the way we treat each other and the diseases that plague us, would we be willing to change? The answer should be a resounding “YES!” But I’m not so sure it would be. We all know the causes of obesity, but we still have a severely overweight population. We know the dangers of drinking, smoking, and doing drugs, yet significant numbers of people remain addicted to all of  these.

We tend to be a society that wants a pill, a quick fix, an easy answer to the problems and diseases that infect us, and I don’t know if, as a society, we’d be willing to change our attitude and behavior toward others, even if it meant eradicating some of the ailments that affect us all.

If I were elected queen of the world, one of the things I would do is issue a decree that everyone, young and old, would be schooled and trained in such things as common courtesy and respect. We’d go back to that old-fashioned notion that if you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything – or at least learn to express it in a positive and supportive manner.

I’m not trying to stifle free speech, independent thinking, or questioning people and things that need attention or correction. I just want to instill in everyone the intellectual equivalent of washing our hands frequently, covering our mouths when we cough or sneeze, and doing whatever we can to stop the spread of things that cause harm to others.

I’m not expecting to be elected queen any time soon, but I hope everyone who reads this will give some thought to the many ways in which we make ourselves and others sick. I hope we’ll all start doing whatever we can to change that. And I hope that whatever disasters and diseases strike us next will quickly be quarantined and contained, so they never get any further than the pages of a blockbuster novel. Or big-screen disaster movie.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on January 17, 2013.
©Betty Liedtke, 2013

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