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whatsthatsound On July - 18 - 2011

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
– Auden

St Francis of Assissi had, to be sure, an odd relationship with his body. As a strict ascetic, he considered it of utmost importance not to give in to its cravings for pleasure and leisure. He dubbed his own body “brother ass” and felt that it should be treated as any other domestic beast of the time. Beaten when in need of discipline, and given only coarse food upon which to subsist. He was known to curb his temptations by hurling his body into snow, or even on one occasion a briar patch which he tossed himself about in until his flesh was ripped and bleeding. However, by the time of his death, the great man had reconsidered his ill treatment of his body – his earthly vehicle – and asked the Lord to pardon him for having treated Brother Ass so cruelly. He realized that he had been indulging a fascination; an attempt to conquer that which his Creator had given him. Finally, it seems, that he who loved life and all its manifestations, had finally learned to love, or at least honor, his own organism.

Although many may feel that Francis’ relationship to his body was downright bizarre, I think it is difficult to escape the conclusion that we, in our modern age, relate to our own bodies in even more dysfunctional ways, or at least are encouraged to. We obsess over its skin layer, its most superficial aspect. Say the word “body” to a teenage male, and no doubt the image that will result is a female with Playboy-approved proportions. Or perhaps his own body, “ripped” and sculpted. It is doubtful that he will think of the intricate, mechanical wonder he inhabits, the magnificence that goes far beyond the skin layer. I’m reminded of a scuba diver, who, seated next to a friend who looked out at the ocean at sunrise and remarked at how beautiful it was, replied, “yes, and that’s only the roof!”

We indulge our bodies in exactly the way that St. Francis frowned upon, as we load up on ice cream, tortilla chips, cola, coffee and red wine. We then scan it for signs of resultant flab, and hold it up for critique alongside the impossible ideals that mass media relentlessly parades before our eyes. In magazine articles and website pages we are asked to consider which Hollywood hunk or starlet has “the best body”, when presumably the correct answer should be the one that functions best – the one that digests, eliminates, breathes, repairs, etc. most efficiently.

No greater indication of our dysfunctional relationship to our bodies can there be than the fact that we have created a trillion dollar industry that has as its sole purpose the manufacture of machines and devices that destroy and disfigure it by the millions. Our so-callled “defense industry” would perhaps be looked upon less favorably by its supporters if it were referred to, more honestly, as “the body destroying industry”. Although it has numerous competitors, perhaps the most atrocious and obscene example of this in all our sad history was the Treblinka II Death Camp in Nazi Germany. This was the Industrial Revolution meets Dante’s Inferno. For the first and only time in history an actual factory was built, with train lines leading up to it, that served no purpose other than the destruction of human bodies as quickly and “efficiently” as possible. People were carted in by the train car-load, and few lived more than 24 hours after arriving.

And these bodies that we waste and destroy so casually are near miraculous machines that are far beyond the capabilities of our greatest scientific geniuses to create or even imitate. Each cell, when it is first birthed in us, is like any other cell in our bodies, yet each knows how to evolve through exactly the right iterations so that it becomes part of our hair, our eyes, our lungs, our genitals, etc. How do the cells do this? Nobody knows, but it is likely the answer will someday be found in the portion of our DNA that biologists have lovingly referred to as “junk”.

We punish bodies mercilessly, and yet throughout the history of our species they have never sinned in any way. They serve us faithfully to the fullest extent they are capable at any given moment, until they can no longer. When they long for sleep we deprive them of it. When they need healthy natural food to stay strong, we insist that they make do on starchy, sugary, salty substances they have little use for. We keep them chained to chairs when they long to move about in the open air, as they were evolved to do. If we treated our pets the same way we treat our bodies we would be considered negligent, at best. And we punish bodies for the transgressions of the mind. I am opposed to the death penalty because I believe it is always a miscarriage of justice, as the body merely did what it was told, no matter how heinous the crime. To the body, slicing a cucumber or slicing into a human finger is essentially the same act, insofar as it merely follows the instructions of a healthy, or deranged, mind. An eye for an eye is thus two outrages, not one.

I am only writing to say that human bodies are innocent. We have yet, as a species, to demonstrate our worthiness to inhabit them. We should never harm them in any way.

Written by whatsthatsound

Writer, Illustrator, Curmudgeon. Ferret Owner. Tokyoite, formerly Ohioan. Much nicer in person.

55 Responses so far.

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  1. Emerald1943 says:

    Hi WTS!

    In searching this morning for something to get me away from politics for a while, I found your piece about the human body…loved it!

    It is still amazing to me that so few people actually have any knowledge of how the body functions to maintain life…like the homeostatic mechanisms that keep us cool in hot weather, safe when there is danger, blood sugar to maintain our energy levels, and any number of hormones to balance our reproductive functions as well as growth and metabolism. It is a truly amazing thing of beauty!

    I remember that in nursing school, I was always in a state of amazement as I learned. What always puzzled me though is how the brain is so susceptible to the urges of the body. We are constantly barraged with incoming messages from advertising media, telling us how we should act, look, dress, eat, buy and yes, think! When we incorporate these messages, we seem helpless under their sway. We do the most bizarre things to our bodies, spending ridiculous amounts of money to dress up, pile on cosmetics (one of the biggest industries in the US), and even go so far as to place “artwork” on our skins. Tattoos, to me, are the most ridiculous! Why does the brain, as the ultimate controller of our behavior, allow us to do these things? Why do we allow outside forces to so drastically shape how we treat ourselves?

    I know…rhetorical questions all! But interesting, nonetheless! Thank you for writing this and providing me with some gray matter exercise that has NOTHING to do with deficits in the budget, but instead, deficits in the use of critical thinking!

    • Many people do these things to “fit in” with peers and many people do these things to show off their wealth. It’s akin to the old adage “keeping up with the Joneses.” Young people get tatoos and body piercings because they are popular, which is funny, because these things used to be had by a desire to appear as an individual, not a member of “the herd.” Now it is exactly a “herd mentality,” that motivates young people to do these things.
      I forget who said it, but I always liked the thought. Who would get art permanently inscribed in their skin, that they wouldn’t hang on their walls?

  2. Caru says:

    “Say the word “body” to a teenage male, and no doubt the image that will result is a female with Playboy-approved proportions. Or perhaps his own body, “ripped” and sculpted.”

    Ahem! 😉

    I don’t necessarily disagree though. However, I saw a fascinating girl today. At first glance, I thought she was guy. But, as I looked again her feminine features become so readily apparent that I was amazed that I had first taken her as a male. Also, she was extraordinarily pretty, but in an unconventional way.

    All in all, I was quite happy that I’d seen her.

  3. ADONAI says:

    Some of my favorite quotes about the body:

    “The body is meant to be seen, not all covered up.”
    ~Marilyn Monroe

    “A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks.”
    ~Thomas Jefferson

    “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”
    ~Friedrich Nietzsche

    “The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on. Sometimes people get their ends reversed. When this happens they need a kick in the seat of the pants.”
    ~Theodore Roosevelt

    “When I die, I’m leaving my body to science fiction.”
    ~Steven Wright

    “The chief function of the body is to carry the brain around.”
    ~Thomas A. Edison

    “I have the body of an eighteen year old. I keep it in the fridge.”
    ~Spike Milligan

  4. AdLib says:

    In recognition for all that it has done for me, I have actually decided to give my body the month of August off. I think it’s going to tour around Europe on a bicycle.

    While it’s gone on holiday, it will admittedly be nice just to have a little “me” time to think about things and just relax. Just hope the maid doesn’t come on Tuesday, see a brain sitting around and put me in the fridge like last time.

    You spend two weeks in a refrigerator next to a jar of snarky pickle spears, tell me how much you enjoy it!

  5. A great line from “Angels In America;”

    “The body is the garden of the soul.”

  6. ADONAI says:

    So……. absolutely no one else is even a little freaked out by the gray penis?

  7. whatsthatsound says:

    I SING the Body electric;
    The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
    They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
    And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.

    Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves;
    And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
    And if the body does not do as much as the Soul?
    And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?

    The complete poem:

  8. wts, here in the western world, we do treat our bodies rather shabbily. In the far east though, for centuries, the people there believed strongly in the tri-angle of Mind, Spirit and Body. They believe that any change in one of these three, effects the other two. A negative change in spirit can bring about negative changes in the mind and the body. Or a negative change in the body can cause negative changes in the mind and the spirit…..etc.
    In the far east, this concept is taught very early in life. And children are made aware much sooner than in the western world.
    I always think it strange when western medicine scorns some medical practices in the east. But now, and probably for the three decades, we in the west are beginning to realize that those in the east weren’t as far off the path as we once believed.
    I don’t know where I heard it, but I always thought it was good advice and it is this, always leave the dinner table just a wee bit hungry.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Hi KT,
      In Japanese they call that “hara hachibun me” which means eighty percent full.

      I totally agree that the Orientals had a fuller awareness of the body as an organism, not just something we carry around. There were Hindu teachers who shunned the body, though. They taught meditation as a way to escape its limitations. One teacher disliked body fascination so much he referred to them as “shit factories”, something I would never agree with, even though I understand the intent, to help people get over their fascination with them.

      • Khirad says:

        And yet they also gave us Hatha Yoga and Ayurveda. This view of course existed, but it was an aberration. It’s curious in that we are to be but reincarnated anyway, I suppose, but the vessel was usually viewed much as KT described the ancient Greeks. And more than that, as Body and Soul themselves were recognized to be intertwined in ways only modern science has recently discovered.

        But lemme have Ravi explain it from here…

        Tana-Mana (Body/Mind)

      • The ancient Greeks also placed as much emphasis on the body as on the soul. Especially the Stoics. They believed that the body AND the soul were all part of the universe. Which indeed they are IMO.
        About the “80%), what is the other 20%? 😉

        • whatsthatsound says:

          The other 20% is when you groan and have to push yourself away from the table. To put it in visual terms, it is the hot fudge sundae you can’t refuse.

  9. ADONAI says:

    The biggest threat to the body? Oxygen.

    One of the most corrosive substances on earth. Oxygen breaks down the body on a molecular level. The thing that gives us life is also slowly killing us. How’s that for irony?

    And I guess it all depends on how you look at the body. What if you are spiritual and believe the body is merely a temporary vessel? As Jesus said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that corrupts the body but what comes out of it.”

    And the thing about the body, about us, is how it adapts. Did you know our bodies are evolving the fat we store? The body is adjusting to the human diet. Figuring out ways to make it work for us. We may give up on our bodies but they try not to give up on us.

    But some do betray us. Not everyone is born with the body they should have. Or some see it break down far, far too early. What then? The body is actively working against the person to shorten their time with us.

    As far as the superficial stuff goes, you can blame that on the brain. we’re naturally drawn to the most aesthetically pleasing things. And it’s not like thousands of years ago someone set the standard for what beauty is. What we consider “sexy” has changed very much over the centuries. It’s only in middle of the last century that “rail thin with a huge rack” became the popular choice. Or ripped abs with frosted hair.

    How much sleep do you think the body needs? It actually only needs a few hours. Maybe a little longer if you’ve really pushed yourself. The body is a miraculous healer. Most of the hours you put in to sleep are for your brain. But even it can be trained to accept shorter rests.

    Pain and fatigue are weakness leaving the body. If we never pushed ourselves, we’d never advance. We’d never get beyond our self imposed limitations. No one knows their body’s limits til they reach it. Running a mile hurts. It hurts a little less the next week. And the week after, until it no longer does. And the body doesn’t mind. It accepts the challenge. It want to be better, just like you. It is in it’s DNA to be better. Even if it has to do it for you.

    • whatsthatsound says:

      AD Freudian slip: “And the thong about the body”…

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Nice commentary, AD. Thanks. I didn’t know that about oxygen. As you said, ironic. I’m not surprised to hear that our bodies are learning to make better use of the food we feed it. They are amazing things to be sure.

      As far as our fascination with the outer form, I’m all for it! And as guilty as anyone. I brought up the scuba diving analogy to point out that I think we should go further, though. As a culture we are TOO focused on what bodies LOOK like, and not enough concerned with what they ARE. We inhabit them unconsciously, for the most part.

      How much sleep? I think you can debate this several ways. For example, our closest relatives, the great apes, get a LOT more sleep than we do. Do they “need” it? I guess you would say they don’t, but nevertheless they enjoy it, and I wouldn’t try to wake a sleeping mountain gorilla. 🙂 I question the wisdom of forcing the body to acquiesce to our stern demands upon its wakefulness, when our cousins are sleeping twice as much.

      As for pain, I consider that a different thing from “harm”. I push my body when I swim, run, cycle. I love to experience it getting stronger. But dropping bombs on villages, torturing people in prisons, these are NOT examples of pain that humans can grow from, at least not in any good way.

      • ADONAI says:

        wts, I most definitely agree on your last point. The worst example I can think of would have to be Mengele’s sick experiments on living humans during WW2.

        That stuff went on in a lot of places but the scope and barbarism of his “experiments” were vile to say the least. And he had a sick fascination with twins:

        “Once Mengele’s assistant rounded up 14 pairs of Roma twins during the night. Mengele placed them on his polished marble dissection table and put them to sleep. He then injected chloroform into their hearts, killing them instantly. Mengele then began dissecting and meticulously noting each piece of the twins’ bodies.”

        Some of them were children. And eh did it all under the banner of “science” and dared call himself a physician.

        “First,do no harm”

      • In Marine Corps boot camp, the DIs constantly shout, “Pain Is Good!”

    • Plutocrats really suck says:

      Adonai, you have it right, especially about oxygen. Anti-oxidants can help, but not much. It is a total irony that which sustains us is breaking us down and eroding us physiologically. Bummer.

      • ADONAI says:

        Indeed pluto. The first time I heard it in biology class I thought it was the craziest thing ever. Oxygen is killing me?!

        But then you get older and realize everything is killing you. Especially time. So you get over it.

        And good to see you back. Don’t be a stranger.

        • Plutocrats really suck says:

          Adonai, Good to see you around too, it’s been a while. I’ve been weaning myself off of the internet as a hobby, only to replace it with playstation. 🙂

          I’ve had this conversation with others when they talk about anti-oxidants, green tea, yada-yada. it’s surprising how many people don’t know that Oxygen is a poison, pure oxygen will fucking kill you.

  10. jkkFL says:

    Good stuff, wts- I must admit that my longing for White Castles didn’t appear to be torture..
    but, I guess, for my own protection-providence intervened, I am now 1,000 miles from one!
    Makes me feel sad that I didn’t quite look at it that way before; but if you can say no to an ice cream, sweet tea or icy beer in FL heat- you have achieved sainthood!!!
    I am not in any danger of being burdened by That honor. 🙂

    • whatsthatsound says:

      Hi jkk. I’m no saint when it comes to the body. I get a lot of exercise and try to eat healthy, but I also over-indulge the sweets, caffeine and alcohol. I wrote the piece to say I think we need to really rethink our relationships with our bodies, and especially our larger body, the earth. Because we are destroying so many things that can’t be replaced.

  11. whatsthatsound says:

    The poem which I excerpted to begin this piece

    Musee des Beaux Arts By W.H.Auden

      About suffering they were never wrong,
      The Old Masters: how well they understood
      Its human position; how it takes place
      While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
      How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
      For the miraculous birth, there always must be
      Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
      On a pond at the edge of the wood:
      They never forgot
      That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
      Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
      Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
      Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
      In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
      Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
      Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
      But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
      As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
      Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
      Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
      Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

    • Emerald1943 says:

      Good morning, WTS! I enjoyed your article and agree with you about the abuse we heap upon ourselves with junk food and obsession about just “the roof”. When I was in nursing school, the more I learned about the workings of the human body, the more I was amazed at its design. It is more amazing to me that the average person in the US has little knowledge of how the body actually ingests, utilizes and excretes what it does not need. Unfortunately, anatomy and physiology is not taught in the public schools.

      The general population of the US is growing more and more obese. This morning, there was a discussion of the rethug candidates running for the Presidential nomination. It was suggested that someone should convince Chris Christy of New Jersey to run. When I think of that man, the image that comes to mind is a loud-mouth bully who is grotesquely obese…suitable to lead the rest of the grotesquely obese Teabaggers. But for the rest of us, not so much. We Americans are the butt of jokes all over the world for our poor physical conditions and obesity…Christy is just what we need to cement that image into the minds of starving people in other “less fortunate” countries!

      I find it offensive when Michelle Obama is raked over the coals for her attempt to focus on childhood obesity while some voters would prefer an overbearing, obnoxious blob of fat that looks like he has never missed a high-caloric meal in his life! Just the role model that we need…NOT!

      Talking about abusing the body…Christy is the poster boy!!

      • whatsthatsound says:

        Hi Emerald, thanks for your comments. Obesity is a major problem, no way around it. I totally applaud Michelle Obama for her efforts to raise awareness about the need to do something about it. I didn’t know about Christy, but the typical politician is much more fit than the average American is. A recent study about obesity rates blew me away. The state with the lowest obesity rate (Colorado) in 2010 would have had the HIGHEST rate in 1990. That’s how fast the epidemic is spreading, and it is almost completely due to diet. Food chains are not serving what the body needs.

      • HA! Whenever I look at Christy, I think of Bobby Baccaleri from “The Sopranos.” Big, fat gangster!

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