Magical Thinking

My first encounter with a “health food store” was back in the 1960s. They sold a mysterious, chewy cereal called “granola” and made cups of dark yerba mate tea that smelled like a mystical potion.

The store owner, who was probably as old then as I am now but seemed like an ancient wizard in street clothes, was delighted to have some curious teenagers drop in. I was poring over his bookshelf and he put a big volume in my hands and told me to take it and pay him later. The cover read “Back to Eden” by Jethro Kloss.

Today you can buy granola in any Market Basket and pungent herbal teas are no longer a novelty. “Back to Eden,” which seemed so esoteric to me with its natural remedies, water cures and herbal potions, is still a classic of the genre and has sold millions of copies. While everything that Kloss recommended has not held up over time, his basic concepts — eating whole foods, nuts and fruit, avoiding processed sugar and additives, and looking to nature as the source of health — are now pretty mainstream science and nutrition.

I’ve always tried to blend curiosity and skepticism in my own explorations of the world. I remember indulging in a free reiki session while working on a story 20 years ago. My rational brain told me there was nothing measurable or tangible exuding from the palms of the practitioner who was combing the ripples of my “energy body,” and I expected to fall asleep on the table. Instead, my mind went on a dreamlike journey unlike anything I’d experienced since, well, back in the 1960s — if you know what I mean.

It could have just been the power of suggestion, but it was an experience that I’ve never forgotten, and I’ve never made disparaging remarks about reiki since then, though I still don’t actually “believe” in it as a cure for anything. I rationalize that people like to be cared for and attended to, and that any harmless attention focused on health or well-being is probably going to create a sense of health and well-being in the “patient.” Maybe that’s all it is. Maybe that’s enough.

One of the draws for many people to first venture to the Granite State was for the healing powers that certain spots claimed to possess. The pristine springs around towns, like Unity and Temple (such healing names), gained so much fame that hotels and spas were created to accommodate the health-seekers. Sure, the primary health benefits were probably the results of getting out of foul, polluted cites and basking in the glories of nature in New Hampshire, but it was enough to bring whole families back, year after year.

The man known as the father of herbal medicine, Samuel Thomson, was born in Alstead and practiced his “Thomsonian Method” in a number of New Hampshire villages. While “bona fide” physicians of the day were ignorantly prescribing various toxic substances to patients as cures and remedies, Thomson’s relatively benign treatments may simply have done less harm, but his battles with “allopathic” (conventional) doctors also spurred patient-centered reformations in healthcare that continue today.

I guess I’m still a curious skeptic, and many so-called cures can be attributed to the “placebo effect,” but then I find myself wondering, why do placebos have an effect?

You needn’t abandon science to try alternatives, and taking responsibility for one’s own health, with some common sense, puts a person on a quest of discovery. The old saw that “good health is not a destination but a journey” may seems like a trite slogan you would find on the wall of a health food store, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also true.

Categories: Editor’s Note