An Autoimmunity and the Distance Between Souls

04 December 2017 Comments Off on An Autoimmunity and the Distance Between Souls


Autoimmunity is the state where our body’s immune cells, which are responsible for the destruction of pathogens (disease-causing stuff), go haywire and attack the body’s own healthy cells. These immune cells are extremely powerful; normally, they terminate all sorts of pushy bacteria, viruses, etc., that would like to claim our bodies for themselves. But in autoimmunity, this destructive potential is channeled toward our own bodies. The consequences are dire, and varied. Multiple sclerosis causes physical, mental and psychiatric problems; type I diabetes leads to an alarming increase in blood sugar levels; and arthritis causes joint pain. These are examples of diseases that have an underlying component of autoimmunity; there are many others.
Adaptive immunity in animals functions according to a simple principle: guardian cells within the body are trained to recognize a foreign life form that might harm us, and destroy it. For instance, B-cells trained to recognize the influenza virus will produce and release molecules called antibodies. These are like “magic bullets” – magic because they very specifically recognize some part of the influenza virus floating around in our bloodstream, and bullets because they bind tightly to this virus and prevent it from causing any damage until other cells arrive on the scene. Some of those other cells can eat the virus, spit out chewed-up little pieces of it and display them for all to see, just like a trophy. T-cells are able to “see” these trophies derived from the virus. Cells of our body, even those not part of the immune system, also continuously display pieces of all the things inside them. So, if the influenza virus infects a lung cell, the lung cell can chew up pieces of the virus, and display them. When a T-cell comes along, looking at all the displays, it instantly recognizes the virus piece displayed by the lung cell. The T-cell then binds tightly to the infected lung cell displaying this virus piece and kills it, just like heroes in stories kill the traitorous informer working for the evil enemy.
As you can guess, things go wrong when B-cells or T-cells lose their way. Some rogue B-cells or T-cells begin to recognize the healthy cells of our own body as traitors and kill them. In multiple sclerosis, cells in the brain and spinal chord are destroyed; in type I diabetes, insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells are destroyed; and so on.
Faulty molecular mechanisms lead to situations where our body destroys itself. Such a pattern of self-destruction can be observed even at the societal level.
To do so, we must first recognize that there is an unbridgeable gap, an abyss, between two souls. No matter how hard we try, we cannot know another person completely. You can try asking about their childhood, about their triumphs and sorrows. But everything they tell you will be interpreted through the filter of life, as you know it. Everything you hear is colored by your own imagination. So, we never really know our families, lovers or friends. We know torn, two-dimensional, black-and-white bits and pieces of their childhoods; we know what their parents were like, what their teachers, siblings, homes and friends were like. Through all of these details and through the description of their favorite toy or dress, we get a dim sense of their longings, of what broke their heart, what made them joyful, and how that might have shaped who they are today. We know the neglect or anger they lived through and how that made them thoughtful and reclusive. We know of the love that surrounded them and how that made them exuberant and loving.
But we never lived their lives. There is a gap between our souls that we cannot cross however much we may wish to see how the world looks through their eyes.
The best we can do is give our attention and try to understand. We can listen. We can watch someone else’s face and body, try to guess at what they cannot explain. We can talk, in turn, about ourselves and see how they react. Why did an incident, tiny and meaningless to me, upset them so deeply? Why do they always offer those exact words of caution? We can listen to their thoughts: what music, movies or books they like, how they talk about their parents, how they want to be woken up, where they dream of going for a holiday, their plans for life, their idea of joy. All these tiny details must also be separated from the ideas that society has put into their heads – what they should eat, drink, wear, and do on weekends.
Through all of this, we can put together a fuzzy shape of their soul, though never the precise plan on which it is built. We are designed to never know another person, no matter how precious and close they are to us.
And yet, we think we know everything there is to know about a stranger we meet because we have found out where they come from, what they wear, what religion they follow and how they spend their Friday afternoons and nights. We have heard about things on the news; things that people like them did or are doing. We have heard about death, riots, bullets and bombs. About demands, money exchanged, telephone conversations, pictures taken. A spoonful comes from social media, a pinch from news channels. Sometimes we read a bit of history (or hear of it from someone else) about what people like them did. Perhaps we heard our parents talking when we were younger and inherited a sense of righteousness. We feel outrage.
Being part of a group of people, and thus not being a part of another, is an act of survival. If they are not of my tribe, they may steal my food and leave me to die. They are not my people, they do not care about me, and I need not care about them. They are brainwashed. They want to destroy us. Their religion is wrong. They do not deserve to live.
We build such strong opinions on flimsy pieces of fact, myth and propaganda. Overreactions. Misplaced outrage. And we allow atrocities to be committed.
We meet new people. (We like to think that we are educated human beings and that we do not trust every nasty piece of news we hear.) Then we secretly watch them for signs that they have some deluded, destructive ideas. Or we meet them and show them our contempt. Or we avoid them completely, shut them off; they do not deserve our attention or friendship.
Blatant overreactions eat at our own societies, at human beings (as we know very painfully from history), like an autoimmune disease eats at our own bodies. But we also have a remarkable capacity for self-delusion; we think our lives are nothing like the lives of the people who lived before.