Jun 082015

Good, The Bad, The Efficacious

The Good, The Bad, & The Efficacious

Reassessing How We Think & Speak About Herbs, Ailments, & Ourselves

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

The following essay is excerpted from the Summer issue of Plant Healer Magazine, available by subscription.


“Our chosen language can either further or limit an immediate goal or larger mission. And it is the ideas that our chosen words convey that can either weaken our positions and purpose, or else help to make truly effective healing action possible.”  –The Language of Healing, Chapter 6 of The Plant Healer’s Path

What are the effects of the words we use – on our perspective, assumptions, and approaches?  What do we actually mean when we say that something is good?  How do terms like “bad” impact the client, their mood and ability to hope, their fears, stress and nervousness, and thus their ailments and outcome?  And how are we ourselves affected by our thoughts and statements, not just by what we take into our mouths but by those utterances that issue from them?

In the foundational book for herbalists – The Plant Healer’s Path – I wrote about the power and consequence of the words we choose to use, focusing on terms that are particular to a healing profession.  It is just as important, however, that we pay attention to even the most common and widely employed vernacular, since there can be so many different connotations… and because the meaning and associations they communicate can hamper as well as help our healing intention or mission.  

A perfect example is the matter of “good and bad.”  Over the course of years, I have heard an increasing number of herbalists equate “good” with “good enough,” thereby lessening their hunger to learn and their drive to excel, and thus their improvement and progress.  When folks gather to discuss which healing practices in particular have proven the most effective, and to point out which don’t seem to work, there is often someone in the group who wants to see every method or idea as equal.  “It’s all good,” they may say.

Even more potentially harmful is the use of “bad.”  Bad people are people who intend to cause harm, or who are aware they are doing hurtful things but do nothing to stop or change.  So, when we talk about a “bad illness” we are portraying it as not only severely but intentionally harmful.  A virus goes from being simply a self serving microbe to being a conscious villain in our telling.  When framed this way, healing becomes intercessional and confrontational, a war against disease instead of holistic treatment.  And worst of all, is how many people getting into herbalism insist that they are “bad herbalists.”  This language reinforces a debilitating lack of confidence in one’s abilities, feeding a sense of insufficiency, and engendering a sense of fatalism about the possibilities of improving.  Its tone infers that we are flawed, unworthy, and unblessed.

Good & Bad Herbalist Signs

Breaking Bad


1. Of poor quality; inferior.

2. Not such as to be hoped for or desired, such as a “bad outcome.”

3. Something that is “bad for you.”:

4. Something that is unlikely, such as: “her chances were bad.”

5. Something defective: a “bad assessment” or “bad choice.”

6. A part of the body that is defective, injured, diseased, or causing pain: for example, “a bad back.”

7. Feeling poorly, as in: “She feels bad.”

8. Feeling bad about something: feeling guilt, regret, or shame.

9. Someone morally depraved or wicked: “the bad guy.”

10. Something inappropriate, such as: a “bad joke” 

It is almost never helpful to use the word “bad” in reference to fellow healthcare providers, unless in the slang sense of “great” or “rad!”  I’ll explain why.

For example, in discussions about official new herbal product manufacturing regulations, I have heard it said that no one who strives for safe practices and obeys the law needs to be concerned, and that only “bad herbalists” or “bad producers” have reason to worry.  Not only is this an inaccurate statement, but this use of the word “bad” contributes to the stratification, exclusion, and elitism that folk herbalism generally and very thankfully avoids. Besides, how could one accurately and fairly declare what is good or bad?  Is a manufacturer bad if they fail to competently source and test the botanicals they use, or only if it deliberately and greedily sells useless or harmful products?  If someone’s assessment and recommendations have repeatedly proven harmful, it at least makes some sense to call him or her a “bad herbalist.”  Scarily, when using this label and measure it becomes all too easy to apply it to people who simply don’t know very much about herbs yet, or to all those who haven’t been able to qualify for a professional membership, or to any practitioner or producer willing to break with convention or law.

I have met thousands of plant healers and manufacturers over the many years that I have been co-creating herbal events and Plant Healer Magazine, yet I can say that I have never encountered a literally “bad herbalist” – which to my definition, would have to be a plant healer with bad intentions.  At worst, some of us can be misinformed, under-informed, or ineffective dispensers of recommendations and herbs, but no caring soul who is genuinely devoted to healing others can ever be fairly called “bad.”  Such characterizations can be poisonous to the folk herbal movement, damaging the cohesiveness and hence the health and reach of the community.

Potentially just as toxic, is that unfortunate habit I mentioned earlier – of unsure practitioners or out-n’-out newbies characterizing ourselves as “bad” herbalists.  While humility can appear lovely or noble, this kind of self-denigration does nothing to encourage us or empower our work.  Feeling bad about ourselves makes it less likely we’ll feel like striving to learn what we need, or to develop more advanced skills… makes us less apt to chance failure and criticism doing whatever we can with what knowledge we possess, in order to try and aid the ill people we know or meet.

The problems with this word don’t end there.  It’s said that one catches a “bad cold,” but thinking of a disease or condition as bad connotes evil more than severe, and puts both the health provider and patient on a course of conflict with what are often natural processes.  Infections are imbalances more than they are invasions, and natural healing is not counterattack or eradication so much as an orchestrated return to balance, wholeness and integrity.

Good PlantBad Plant There are also no such thing as good or bad herbs.  All have a potentially positive role in the ecosystem, and often in a natural healing system.  Some that can be harmful or even deadly in large amounts, are exceedingly beneficial in smaller, appropriate dosages. All can potentially have a negative impact, as well, depending on a person’s condition and symptoms, their constitution, and their overall vitality.  

The Wild Carrot in many botanical face creams may be “good” for others, but when I tried using them they greatly aggravated my HCV-triggered dermatitis, and I had to quickly switch back to Rosalee de la Foret’s Wild Rose cream to gently soothe my cheeks instead.   Liver stimulants like Berberis spp. have the potential to help people with a sluggish liver by initiating mild irritation, yet can be harmful to someone like me with an already overstimulated liver.  My partner Kiva points out that the warming aromatics of plants like Oshá can both dry up boggy, congested tissues and assist in either preventing or treating respiratory infection through its volatile oils and yet can actually aggravate dry, hot lung conditions in sensitive folks.

Before we refer to problems, practitioners or practices, plants or protocols as “bad,” let’s take a moment to question this loaded word’s various definitions as related to herbalism:

1. Of poor quality; inferior.

Is what we may call a “bad” disease really of poor quality, or is it actually quite well and robust?  Do you think it helps or hurts to categorize beginning or less effective herbalists as inferior?

2. Not such as to be hoped for or desired, such as a “bad outcome.”

Isn’t an outcome more accurately described as undesirable, unfortunate, or unpleasant?

3. Something that is “bad for you.”:

Gluten can be said to be unsuitable for certain people’s constitutions and digestion, but can it really be bad if it doesn’t mean to hurt us?

4. Something that is unlikely, such as: “her chances were bad.”

Are our chances of making a living from herbalism bad?  Or are they simply difficult odds to hopefully be overcome by our passion and perseverance? 

5. Something defective: a “bad assessment.”

An assessment/diagnosis may be inaccurate, but is it really bad?  It depends on if the herbalist offering the assessment intends well, or intends ill.  Obviously most practitioners as well as family members mean the best when they attempt to determine what is making someone ill.

6. A part of the body that is defective, injured, diseased, or causing pain: for example, “a bad back.”

We don’t call a person bad if they are weakened by disease or suffer an accident, so why would we call a well-purposed organ bad when it is having trouble?  It’s not a “bad back” if it bore a person’s loads for some part of their life, not bad because it hurts or fails after an accident, or after years of being subjected to poor posture or extreme loads. And rather than being defective, an organ is more often injured, impaired, obstructed, undernourished, or otherwise compromised.

7. Feeling poorly, as in: “she feels bad.”

Someone may feel in pain or even downright miserable, but they’re not “feeling bad” unless they are feeling like causing hurt to people or things… or perhaps, feeling deliciously mischievous, like ditching responsibilities, having an early shot of mezcal, or breaking some boring rules or conventions!

8. Feeling bad about something: feeling guilt, regret, or shame.

Are you really feeling bad about people’s illnesses and the worsening state of our world, or isn’t it more likely that you feel concerned, or disappointed, or alarmed, or unable to help as much as you would like?

9. Someone morally depraved or wicked: “the bad guy.”

And yet, some of us still speak of ourselves as being “bad herbalists”?  Really?

10. Something inappropriate, such as: a “bad joke” 

Finally, our use of this word isn’t a bad joke, it just that the consequences aren’t funny.  Our usage of such loaded terms does not constitute “bad language,” it is simply a case of problematic and sometimes counterproductive terminology.  And it will not ensure we’re seen as good, just because we learn to use the language better.

Some alternative terms to consider include:

Unsuitable: Not a good fit or match for a person or condition.

Problematic: Possibly useful, but with potential difficulties or side effects.

Counterproductive: Obstructive to the aims of a practice or treatment

Harmful: Causing bodily or other harm, usually conditional.

Severe: Extreme, in a negative sense.

Dangerous: Having the potential to cause harm or death, such as when a plant or drug are used improperly.

(And of course) 

Unwell: Out of balance, ailing, suffering.

Good and Bad Rubber Ducklings

Being or Doing Good

good |go͝od|(adjective)

1. To be desired or approved of.

2. Having the qualities required for a particular role

3. Possessing or displaying moral virtue

4. Obedient to rules or conventions

“Good” is a word that is used much more than “bad” in the herbalist community, and a quality more common to its members.  Herbalists tend to have hearts full of goodness.  We are likely try to good for others even when it doesn’t pay or benefit us directly.  We look for those herbs that work good in various situations, and we strive for a good outcome.  We do things for the good (benefit) of the plants and their habitats, of our society and cultures, for the good of the world.  Most of us try not to needlessly offend anyone.  We compliment each other on our good work.  Most of the word’s definitions describe the majority of people we call plant healers:

1. To be desired or approved of.

The work we do is highly desired, as is health and vitality itself, even if herbalism has yet to receive the approval of either the medical industry or the general public.

2. Having the qualities required for a particular role.

The primary qualities for being an herbalist are concern, compassion, appreciation for plant medicine, and a desire to learn and develop – which nearly everyone called to this field embody and exhibit.  

3. Possessing or displaying moral virtue.

Moral judgments have caused much inequity and misery throughout history, but if herbalism is characterized by a morality, it is in service to life, nature, diversity, balance, free expression and vitality.  Its virtues are compassion, devotion, nurturance and nourishment, alliance between natural medicines and the natural body, an active reconciling of science and intuition or magic, and a willingness to use methods outside the scope of conventional MDs.

4. Obedient to rules or conventions.

Okay, three out of four ain’t bad!  Herbalism, by its very nature, is truly unconventional in the modern age.  And what could be better, than trying to do good even when there are rules against it?

You are good – a good herbalist/person – if you care about the suffering of people and animals, if you delight in plants and are a student of their natures and actions, and if you do you best to assist the natural processes of healing.  This last aspect is perhaps the most important, since anyone’s goodness depends on the actual good that we do.

This Doesn’t Mean That “It’s All Good”

No one who cares about others and attempts to help them ought to ever think of themselves as a “bad herbalist,” but this is not to say that we shouldn’t make an effort to continue evolving.  If we do good work, we can probably do better.  The most experienced practitioner, just like the newbie, has some degree of capacity for new insights, to increase our knowledge, to develop greater understanding, and to improve our skills.  We shouldn’t wait until we reach some arbitrary level of knowledge and skills before trying to help people, but neither can we be complacent about our continuing education or our real-world effects.  “Folk” herbalism doesn’t mean without consequence, nor does it imply casual, undisciplined, or untested.  After all, there can be serious consequences to how we do or don’t treat ourselves and others.

Trying to help someone assess their health problems is a good thing, and there is no such thing as a “bad” assessment/diagnosis – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ineffective, unhelpful, counterproductive, and even downright harmful misdiagnosis.  At the very least, an inaccurate reading of a person’s symptoms, condition and constitution can mean spending time and money on a protocol that is unneeded, resulting in a delay in getting useful medical and/or herbal treatment for a worsening condition.  

Herbs are good things, you surely agree, and yet they are not always “good for us” – depending on various factors.  There are definitely certain dosages, situations, and plant species that can be harmful.  We’re much more helpful as practitioners when the expression and attitude “it’s all good” gives way to deepening understanding, evaluating, and discerning… determining which herbs to give for which conditions, to which types of people, in which amounts, and prepared in what particular ways.

Good and Bad split

A Language of Efficacy


1. Successful in producing a desirable or intended result.

2. Effective.

If our aim is to assist making ourselves, others, society, our environment, and the natural world more healthy, we would be wise to stop thinking, speaking and writing about these things in terms of good and bad.  I hate to sound like a stereotypical Choleric, but if our goal of healing matters, if results matter, then the optimum word is “effective,” and the operative question becomeshow effective?”  How effective a particular plant is, in what situations and amounts.  How effective our assessments and treatments are, as measured by outcomes.  How effectively we reduce the suffering of our clients, how effectively we encourage and support the revitalization of their very lives.

Increased effectuality requires extensive research on our parts, repeat experimentation (trial and error), continuing analysis, critical thinking, courageous reconsideration, adaptation and amendment.  It is through increasing awareness and effort that our work becomes more effective – potent, constructive, beneficial, successful, and for these reasons, valuable.  We’ll be more effective in our healing mission, and therefore more effectively satisfied and fulfilled, the more carefully we pick our path of learning, our work and role, our perspectives and approaches, our treatments and methods… our herbs, and our words.


(RePost and Forward Freely)

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>