Wise Bodies

I trust my body to take care of itself, even in the face of fables about its incompetence.

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I’m recovering from the flu, which laid low my whole household. It came, for me, hard on the heels of a disastrous case of poison oak, which reduced me to an itchy, raw mess. I’m congested, coughing, and fatigued. This may be a strange moment for what I’m about to say: I love my body.

This is, on the best days, a radical statement, especially for me. To live in modern America is to be bombarded by commercials, billboards, and magazine ads informing us of the unsuitability of our bodies (and, of course, what Company X can do to fix it for us). Our hair, clothing, body odor, skin tone, and waist size are all cause for despair, it seems. If you’re a woman, crank the message up to 11. If you are, like me, a fat woman, well, yikes. Try driving down a Southern California freeway. The juxtaposition of lap-band procedure, strip club, and beer billboards are enough to induce a psychotic break. Everything is wrong with our bodies. There’s nothing they get right. Yet here I am, going on about my love for my body?

Am I crazy or just not paying attention? Neither, as it turns out.

I received distressed entreaties from a certain relative to go to the doctor. Ignoring the dubious state of my insurance at the moment, I have to wonder why I would do that. What, exactly, would a doctor do for me? More accurately, what would a doctor do for me that my body wasn’t already doing for itself? If I had a compromised immune system or my body showed signs or had a history of struggling to repair itself, sure, medical attention might be necessary. I’m the last person you will hear advocating an abandonment of all medicine. Nor would I suggest that I know better than someone who wishes to seek out medical care, even in circumstances similar to mine. You are in charge of your own body. You know it best. But that’s the point. I knew, and expressed, that my body was doing everything it needed to do.

About the only thing I’ve been able to do the past week is read. In Michael J. Gelb’s How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, I read something about the distribution of our neural networks. Our brain is not the only part of us that thinks. Our whole body, alive with nerve impulses, synapses firing, is processing from head to foot. At the same time, I’m reading We, Robot, by Mark Stephen Meadows. It’s got me thinking about the complexity of both body and mind and the difficulties in artificially reproducing the broad-based skills of the human being. We can create robots the balance on a single wheel better than we balance on a unicycle (well, better than I balance, anyway). We can create a robot who uses infrared spectrometers to “smell” chemical composition to determine the taste characteristics of an unopened bottle of wine. (The robot is NEC Corporation’s PaPeRo and it thinks we smell like bacon. Go figure.)

The task of making one that can smell the wine, prepare the meal to go with it, make polite dinner conversation, and wash the dishes afterwards, however, still eludes us.

Meanwhile, without doctor visits or more advanced medication than lots of tea and three decongestants in as many days, my body has recovered from a viral attack that would make my PC blow a fan and retire in protest. Even as I’m still sniffling, I’m filled with fever-warm affection for a body that normally receives little else but ridicule and condemnation. Sneezing fits became a source of fascination, as I marveled at my body’s efforts to expel the offending occupants.

My body knows what it is doing.

I contrast this with the TV doctors who produce shows about “resetting your metabolism” and “tricking your appetite” and other such nonsense. Look, I get that things can go wrong. I am, for example, eager not to die of rabies or pneumonia or staph infection. (On the subject of metabolism, I would suggest that the constant dieting espoused by these doctors and the resultant weight cycling might be the cause. If you tinker with the machine enough, you’ll eventually break something. It doesn’t make it a bad machine, people.) But what the hell is wrong with us and our culture? We approach our bodies, even the bodies of children, with an expectation of flaws, failings, and a desperate need for repairs.

We think we’re smarter than our bodies. Listen to weight loss advice sometime. (Actually, please don’t.) Willpower. Determination. Overcoming. It’s all mind over matter. We can think our bodies into… what? Thinness? Submission? Hungerlessness? Please. At moments like this, our bodies are so much smarter than we are. A race of chemical signals tells us fuel is needed and we get all offended.

Which system is better: the corporeal or the cultural?

I’m all in favor of life-saving medicine, but I refuse to believe that my body is so clueless, it cannot get over a cold or paper cut without intervention. I’m sticking to the philosophy of, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Try letting it fix itself for once, too.

Published by Joyce Sully

Joyce Sully believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real. So she writes stories. Really, what else could she do?

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