June 24, 2013
Warning: This post contains bad puns. Reader discretion is advised.
Magazine covers, fifty-foot billboards, widescreen movies: sex sells and marketers know it. Being overwhelmed by magnified body parts, it makes one realize how comical this whole business of sex really is. Some body parts are stars while others are background extras. A woman’s bust-line is in your face, but a plumber’s cleavage is the butt of jokes.
To shake hands with a stranger is a show of friendliness, but to touch his feet is deference. Isn’t this a kind of discrimination against feet? I mean, the average hand carries some fifty viruses on its surface, where as a foot, protected by socks and shoes, has almost none.
Oh I know we love of all our body parts as though they were our children, but don’t we have our clear favorites? We are so proud of our eyes we show them off to everyone and his grandmother. But the anus, well that is hidden away like a shameful mistake. Yet we could live without our eyes (plenty of blind people live perfectly fulfilled lives), but not a one can survive without his anus. (So now whenever someone calls me an A-hole, I say, “Why, thank you. Yes indeed I am indispensable.”)
Yes, the obvious answer to why some body parts are sexier is that they have a denser concentration of tactile nerves than other parts do. But that does not explain why the mouth and anus are treated so unequally. Anatomically similar, both orifices have a border of soft, sensitive tissue packed with nerve endings, and it is arguable which of them is the cleaner (though I suspect each has its own set of resident bacteria). Yet kissing on the mouth is an act of love, but kissing ass is a humiliation.
It may be cultural bias that compels us to regard some body parts as sexy and others as unworthy, but I do think it is beneficial to personally re-evaluate our relationships with our body parts.
Earlier this week I found myself in the waiting room of my local hospital. The clinic was backed-up, we all prepared ourselves for a long wait. Then in walked two very different kinds of women: a mother with a toddler, and Mandy, one of Toronto’s most notorious transexuals. Mandy changed genders later in life, she had the means to undergo every procedure in the Cosmetic Surgeon’s catalogue. Her high-heels were open-toed, exposing ruby toenails. In fact every part of her was calculatedly feminine. Unlike the mother with the toddler, who took her womanhood for granted. Mandy is outspoken about her flip-flop and she often repeats that standard line of having been “a woman trapped inside a man’s body.”
I could not determine if the talkative but cute toddler was a boy or girl until the mother enlightened us. Nothing in his speech, his manners or his appearance was male or female. He was what we all are basically: a person. This reminded me that a hundred years ago parents dressed little boys and girls alike, in frocks and curls. I wish there had been a way I could advice him to hold on to that wisdom he now owns naturally: that inside he is neither a boy nor a girl. That despite his skin tone, inside he is not black, or brown, or white. But soon he will learn to play with his ‘outie’ and then he will behave differently to those with an ‘innie’. I want to warn him that even though the two organs are not dissimilar (Mandy had her outie made into an innie), he will give too much importance to them. The world will persuade him that they are as far apart as Mars and Venus. I would like him to always remember that each is a person trapped inside a body, no matter what shape of the externalities. But I know it is too early for that.
Soon after my cardiac event, I was lucky enough to speak to a very wise man about my fears and anxieties for a future with a partially dead heart. He advised me to re-examined my relationships with my body parts. He told me to question the values assigned to each of them. He said were I to do this, I will reach a stage when I am able to witness the deterioration of my body with utter acceptance. He was right.
I sometimes meet patients who are grieving over the amputation of a leg or a foot. Or people who are distressed about losing their hearing, their sight, their mobility, due to old age. I wish I could somehow share that advice with them. But I know it is too late for that.
June 17, 2013
You see, the invitation was not an ordinary one. It was a box fashioned to resemble a cloth-bound 19th century book. It was decorated with brass embroidery and inside were the details of the venues and times, gold embossed in the cursive style of calligraphy. Each invitation must have cost a small fortune and I did not believe these invites were handed out lightly. It seemed ungracious and rude not to accept the invitation. But what do I buy for someone I do not know well enough?
As I searched my brain for gift ideas it struck me that my mind, deprived of real knowledge, was resorting to stereotypes about the bride and groom. I was making wild guesses about their financial status, their possible cultural tastes as far as colours and styles, judgements about their new life together based on their ethnicity. I was appalled with myself.
For most of my life I have consciously resisted generalizing people according to their membership of race, of gender, of sexuality, of ethnicity, of age, of status. I have long considered stereotyping to be lazy knowledge, but here I was effortlessly falling into the habit.
“Relax,” said a friend, “stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. There is always a grain of truth in them.” But is that really true?
Certainly there are infamous examples of politicians who are corrupt and motivated purely by self-interest, but does that mean every politician must be corrupt? No doubt a percentage of policeman are bullies or crooks, but is the percentage any greater than within the civilian population? Stereotypes are never backed up by statical data, the evidence is purely anecdotal, and yet stereotypes are irresistible and enduring.
I was once summoned for jury duty. A black man was accused of attempted murder of his girlfriend. When the potential jurors were polled, the defense lawyer asked the same question to each juror: Do you think that you will be biased in your decision because of the race of the accused? The prosecution tried to stack the jury with female jurors (so they would be sympathetic to the victim) while the defense tried to get men of colour. When the case did get started, the jurors trusted the eye witness testimonies the most, even though study after study has shown how unreliable eye witnesses are. It is not that witnesses wish to lie or pervert justice, it is simply the way our brains are wired. We do not recall events like a DVD on replay, rather we reconstruct events in our minds. With each recall, we reinterpret according to what makes sense to us at that moment in our lives. In other words, our brains re-imagines events to suit our brain’s existing stereotypes.
Without going back to the drawing at the beginning of this post, can you remember who is holding the razor? If you remembered the black man as the one holding the razor, then congratulations, you are in agreement with the majority of subjects in Allport and Postman’s (1947) experiments on reconstructive memory. Look again though, most people remembered wrongly.
It is tough to see past our own biases, but I believe we need to keep vigilant at all times. Because not all stereotypes are as broad as race, gender or sexual orientation. Sometimes they are deeply personal and have lasting effects upon relationships. I happen to know several off springs whose parents divorced and married other people. All of these off springs tell the same story: the wicked, domineering step mother, the weak, uncaring father, and of course, the poor, suffering children. As an outsider, these narratives strike me as bad literature, full of cardboard stereotypes, but to the people concerned this is the reality of their lives.
Here is where the grain of truth lies within stereotypes: stereotypes are true expressions of feelings but not of the facts. I can’t help wonder though, if the parents, step-parents, and off springs were to acknowledge that perhaps the pasts they are remembering are personal reinventions, colored by emotions and passions, would they then trust the memories and hurts quite so much? Might they even heal inside and perhaps forge new relationships with their estranged parents? I think it is possible.
Within relationships, when a couple argue, one or both might resort to the always and never declarations: “You never help around the house.” “You always go off with your friends.” These exaggerations feel truthful to the one making them because they express how he or she feels, but they are not factual. Isn’t this an example of the mind resorting to the well-worn mechanism of stereotypes?
One of the joys of meeting different kinds of people is the stories they tell about themselves and their unique worldviews. Both the elderly and the homeless are very generous about sharing their life experiences, perhaps because so few are interested. I find when I listen without re-interrupting to suit my own sensibilities, I gain a perspective I did not have before. That is their gift to me. It would be ungracious and rude not to accept.
June 10, 2013
One striking aspect about visiting terminally ill old people in hospital is their casual attitude about their imminent end. When I first began volunteering I had expected them to be depressed about death. Perhaps a rare few might offer a philosophical gem about death and dying, I thought. But none of that has happened. Instead, time after time, I come across people totally at peace with leaving the world.
For me there was a disconnect here. After all, aren’t we mortals supposed to be dogged by fear of death? Our every action is curtailed, informed in some sub-conscious way by the fact that some day we will perish. And here are people face to face with that fact and not the least bit concerned.
Having just recovered from a bout of illness myself, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the feeling of being sick and how it changes awareness. Naturally there is much attention upon the body and its aches and pains, but look a bit deeper and you notice something is missing. Gone is the mundane chatter of daily concerns: the worry about this and that, the concern with what is happening on the street, etc. When I am sick I do not care to log into my e mail, the news does not interest me, I don’t care who has phoned, in fact, nothing much of the world seems as important as it did before. Not money, not pleasures, not even eating. The attention is solely upon the basics, the breathing and heart beat.
I found this interesting because this is exactly the technique of meditation. Most styles of meditation teach suspending the outside world in some way. Find a quiet spot to practice meditation, they say. Close your eyes to shut out distractions, they advice. Now turn your attention to your breathing, simply watch the in flow and out flow.
During my illness, all this happened effortlessly. Because the breathing was laboured, my attention naturally fell upon its ebb and flow. I found it curious how it affected my sense of “me.” When the breathing was near-normal, this feeling of “I” was at its strongest. When the breathing was faltering, the “I” lost significance, and along with it, all the things “I” considers important. The fact of being alive, the life within my body was the one and only constant.
It made me wonder if illness can be perhaps be a natural form of meditation?
The other odd thing about fever is the vivid and surreal dreams. In fact, even normal thinking has that phantasy characteristic when in the grips of fever. It is no coincidence then that many great artists and writers had bouts of prolong illness, particularly in their youth. Jonathan Swift, Shakespeare, James Joyce, the Bronte sisters, among others, all retreated into their imagination during their illnesses, as did artist Frieda Kahlo. While none of them were saints, all of them did plunge deep into their psyches and explored the underbelly of daily living with insight. Isn’t that a kind of meditation?
Once the fever broke and normal thinking resumed, it struck me that the images of daily thinking are just as unreal and surreal, only we take them oh so seriously. I was reminded of the classic descriptions of near-death experiences, you know, the beings of light that appear before you. They do. Except they appear before you even when you are not dying. They appear before you nightly in dreams as well as in routine thinking. Imagine anyone you love. Isn’t that presence of him or her in your mind made up of a kind of light? The light of you own awareness?
I believe this explains why prolonged illness is so profound, so life transforming for people who survive it. In effect, we are in a prolonged state of meditation. It not only affords a person the time to reflect and contemplate upon his life, it affords attention. Normally we are too burdened, too distracted, too entertained by the ideas and plans of our own mind. Illness enforces a lovely letting go, a temporary freedom from the cares of the world.
It may explain why seniors in hospitals, who usually experience multiple illnesses in the final years, are so at peace with dying.
A painful body is no picnic but it does compel a person to find a centre within where there is no pain. If this is done with awareness, then you quickly realize the body is a shell which houses your essence. Even done without awareness, this knowledge grips hold at some level, without being verbalized.
Finally, I had an idea about that other classic NDE, the tunnel with the light at the opening. In my opinion, the light people see is one’s own essence, only the mind objectifies it as out there. The darkness of the tunnel is the stillness of an unfettered mind. The light you see in NDE is your true self.
None of us are immune to sickness of the body. While I do all I can to remain healthy — eat right, moderate exercise and take reasonable safety precautions, I no longer fear being overwhelmed by a virus or worse. As age advances, and with it the decline of the body, I take comfort in what someone said to a friend on his seventy-fifth birthday: When you get over the hill, the view is so much more spectacular.
June 3, 2013
My neighbor Frank is young, successful, and good-looking. He drives a nice car, has a lovely condo, good friends. You’d expect he should be happy, care-free and content? But no. The other day he was parking his car in our building’s underground when he noticed a room he did not recognize. Has this been newly installed, he thought? The door was painted green and appeared to have a peep hole at the centre of it. Very strange.
As he lay in bed that night he just could not fall asleep. What was in the room? Why is it there all of a sudden? Who uses it?
The next morning, on his way to work, he pulled out his cellphone and snapped a few pictures of it. He showed the pictures to a few of the neighbours but none of us offered any explanations that satiated him. “Why don’t you ask the front desk, Frank?” we said. Frank couldn’t do that, for he suspected the purpose of the room was nefarious. We shrugged our shoulders and carried on with our lives. But not Frank.
He has decided that the room is a secret bar used by our building’s management, all of course on the residents’ dime. Seriously, that is what he believes. He is quiet sane otherwise, but this conspiracy theory has really robbed him of his sense. He has now made it his mission to expose management’s dirty little secret. He brought it up at the Annual General Meeting in front of most of the building’s residents. Oh we snickered and mocked, but Frank kept grilling the management as though he were Jimmy Stewart determined to get at the truth.
While his plight is amusing, sadly he is not alone. Everyone of us at some time or other finds we are taken over by an idea. An idea entirely fabricated by our imagination. An idea that is preposterous to others, but it is an indelible truth as far as we are concerned. It is idiomatically known as making a Frankenstein’s Monster. And just as the monster the Dr. Frankenstein created got out of control and destroyed its creator, we saw Frank being overwhelmed and undermined by his own fabrication. It reminded me of those feelings from when I was student.
There was one teacher I was convinced hated and loathed me. I was used to being the teacher’s pet so I was very unsettled at this idea. This teacher was extra strict with me. I was chided for the most minor transgressions. Other students would stroll in late and he would say nothing. I was late the once and he walked out of the class “because if no one is interested I will not waste my time.” I took it all very personally. It caused me untold distress. I found it hard to concentrate on the subject during his class. All I could think about was, ‘why does he hate me?”
It took me years to understand that he never hated me, nor disliked me. I had been such a model pupil that he found my transgressions less tolerable than those of the lost causes. In affect, he was biased towards me. He saw my strengths as punctuality, doing the right thing, never making waves. The other students had other strengths but these were mine and it distressed him to see me neglect them. I could have had a happier time in his class had I not created that Frankenstein’s Monster. Monsters are always scary to the point they leave you unable to function. When that monster is of your creation, it is particularly unfortunate. My grades suffered, I was deeply unhappy, I felt falling sick. It was a monster indeed.
None of us are immune. I know of a woman whose marriage ended because she suspected her husband was cheating on her. It turns out he wasn’t but her paranoia drove a wedge in the marriage nevertheless. I now wonder what is the engine driving this process? Is it perhaps a type of vanity? Underneath that paranoia is a notion of uniqueness. That I know something no one else was smart enough to figure out. I am being singled out for unfair (special) treatment. That zeal to unmask the conspiracy is really the veracity of pride, with its subliminal sense of self-superiority. Secret liquor rooms, hateful teachers, unfaithful spouses, the conspiracies may be many, but the outcome is always the same. We end up defeated, humiliated, and drained of energy.
It is impossible to ever be free of them, nor is it desirable. You could be right: there might actually be a liquor stash, a bigoted teacher, a cheating spouse. But what is possible is to learn from these past episodes. Having gone through that one years ago has made me vigilant to them. Now I question their validity more stringently. I see them more objectively. For that I am grateful to that teacher.