The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: Importance of Acceptance

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When you value something, you consider it worthwhile and meaningful. Values have a significant influence on one’s behavior and they are often times seen as permanent and resistant to change. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a modern day philosopher, argues that most conflicts are not expressed through the clashing of two opposing values, but rather that they “arise through dispute over the meaning of the same values” (67). You may wonder, how does one prevent these arguments? Simply put, you can’t. But what you can do is find a happy medium. Appiah argues that cross cultural conversations about values don’t have to end in disagreement because “it is often possible to agree about what to do even when we do not agree on the reasons behind it” (69) and that “we can live in peace and harmony without agreeing on the underlying values” (75).The permanent values that Lia’s doctors and her parents obtained, came into conflict. Although The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down did not completely lack Appiah’s concept of values and the importance of coming together, it did not emphasize it right from the beginning of Lia’s sickness. Despite the fact that they had different meanings of the same value, the doctors tolerance of patient’s values changed, and were seen less rigid, and they were able to save Lia.

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My concept is values. Values are a person’s judgment of what is important in their life, and they can be broken down into importance, worth, or usefulness of something. Everyone has their own individual values which they hold dear. Some characteristics of values are that values are most central to the core of a person and that they are relatively permanent. Furthermore, everyone has a different hierarchy of values identified by the importance we assign to them such as: education, wealth, honesty, etc. Although we have different values, we can still agree to unite as one. Appiah said “no doubt there are widely shared values that help Americans live together in amity” (70). By saying this he emphasises that our shared values, although not necessarily the same, allow us to all have a friendly relationship with one another.

Values may differ from person to person, but they could be similar based upon their source. The strongest source might arguably be family. Family, especially immediate family, is the most influential factor in one’s learning their values and certain “norms”. Values one learns from family during childhood will most likely be ingrained with them throughout the rest of their adulthood. Another important source comes from a cultural perspective. Cultural factors include anything that is learned and passed on from generation to generation as well as how one “group” is brought up as a whole and what they agree upon as most important. Weather one values making money from working hard or doing a service to mankind depends upon one’s cultural background. Lastly, religion is also seen as a strong source for the upbringing of values. Religious values are moral principles which are seen in various religious traditions, texts and scriptures, and beliefs. As opposed to personal values, religious-based values are usually based upon scriptures and religion’s established norms. These, like most other values, rarely change. Similarly to cultural factors, religion has been brought upon for ages now, and it’s values have stayed the same from then until now.

Although there are different roots which the values we hold deeply come from, values are the basis of human personality. They are a very powerful but silent source affecting human behavior, and they can alter and change our perspective about certain things. Both the Hmong culture and the westrn medicine doctors value the care and treatment of others, but the Hmong are seen treating the soul whereas the Western Medicine Doctors are seen treating the human body.

Appiah stated that “value language helps shape common responses of thought, action, and feeling. But when the issue is what to do, differences in what we think and feel can fall away” (69). This is the main point seen throughout The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down as Lia is very sick and both her parents and the doctors want to treat her, but they have different backgrounds and can’t agree on how exactly to treat her. In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne stated that “Dan had no way of knowing that Foua and Nao Kao had already personally diagnosed Lia’s problem as the illness where the spirit catches you and you fall down” (___), more known as the soul leaving the body. On the other hand, “Foua and Nao Kao had no way of knowing that Dan had diagnosed this behavior as epilepsy” (___). Because of their different understandings of what was happening to Lia, they had different approaches as how to treat her. Although the both of them valued Lia’s health, they could not agree on each others methods of treatment. These very different ‘explanatory models’ (__) each grounded in culture, caused each of them to respond in different and sometimes even contradictory ways. Lia’s doctors had wished to treat her illness with medication, hoping of completely eliminating her seizures, while her parents felt that too much medication would interfere with the spiritual healing conducted by a neeb, and the need would honor her in her community. The cultural difference separated the both of them, ultimately fighting over what is right in ways of treating poor Lia.

Appiah stated that “we can live together without agreeing on what the values are that make it good to live together; we can agree about what to do in most cases, without agreeing about why it’s right (71). This was seen towards the end of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. The doctors agreed to let Lia’s parents give her Hmong medicine as a way of healing while still checking up on her and sticking to the doctors regular treatment. When anne asked Neil if he regrets meeting Lia, he stated “Once I might have said yes, but not in retrospect. Lia taught me that when there is a very dense cultural barrier, you do the best you can, and if something happens despite that, you have to be satisfied with little successes instead of total successes. You have to give up total control. That is very hard for me, but I do try. I think Lia made me into a less rigid person” (___). This is a prime example of two cultures, although different viewpoints about the same values, coming together as one with a heartwarming outcome. Anne also stated that “The action most worth watching is not at the center of things, but where edges meet” (___). This explains Appiah’s quote even more. It’s not about completely agreeing with one another, but it’s about agreeing to disagree. We can’t go our separate ways, but instead we need to come together and share our values and work for a positive medium.the overlap of our two values will cause us to come together as one.

There are no heroes or villains in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Everyone, including Lia’s parents and her doctors act with the best intentions, but there are frequent, and often tragic, miscommunications along the way which caused Lia’s health to worsen. In Chapters 5 and 7 Lia’s pediatrician Neil interprets the Lee parents’ resistance to medicine as inadequate care for their child. Since the Lees and the pediatricians disagree about the cause of Lia’s illness, they never agree on the cure. Because of this, Anne says “her life was ruined by cross-cultural misunderstanding” (___). The doctors were not trying to help Foua and Nao Kao’s regarding their beliefs or abilities because they did not want to agree or try to understand why they believe what they believe rather than accepting it and trying to understand why they want certain things done to their daughter that comes from what they believe. They should have respected and tried to understand how Lia should have been helped in a way their culture does it.

Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism and Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down emphasize the importance of communication and acceptance. Appiah wrote that “conversations do not have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values; it’s enough that it helps people get used to one another” (p85). Lia’s health could have improved if the doctors and her parents worked together from the start. Appiah emphasizes that we should take others interests seriously, and take them into account. He states that “encouraging cosmopolitan engagement, presupposes the acceptance of disagreement” (68) and that “practices and not principles are what enable us to live together in peace (84).  

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