Who’s Body Is It Anyways?

August 5, 2013


Body as garment. Michaelangelo, Last Judgement

Body as garment. Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement

Jack sits cheerfully on his bed in the Hematology ward of the cancer hospital. After a successful stem cell transplant, he is soon to be discharged. “I’m going home with a  new blood type,” he says with a grin. “I used to be A Positive, now I’m O Negative.” The whole ward is full of people with their bone marrow replaced by that of the donors’ (some of whom are strangers with very different DNA). Very sci-fi, very Invasion of the Body Snatchers! 

I can’t help thinking about Jack as I spend time with our newest family member. Almost since the day he was born, my grand-nephew has been the cause of minor family rivalries. His mother’s side see themselves clearly in him, while his father’s side are equally sure his good looks come from us. He himself is uncanny at distinguishing relations from strangers. He is not unique in this. Scientists at the Yale Infant Cognition Centre say all babies come hard-wired with a familial bias. The body is me and those with my DNA are my friends and protectors. This is inborn wisdom. We grow up without questioning it. Now, startling research from the National Institute of Health’s  Human Microbiome Project is challenging this notion that our bodies are our own.

Microbes, bacteria and fungi live in key parts of our body, this much was known, but it turns out these organisms are in every part of our bodies and without them we would die. They help fight infections in the lining of the nose, they help digest nutrients in the stomach and intestines, they even help our skin stay healthy by living on its surface. So all of these microorganisms co-exist like this whole other ecosystem within our bodies, feeding off of us, as well as nurturing us. The old idea was: my body is a temple. But now it seem, the body is more like the river that runs besides the temple, with the creatures living in it.

Except that these microorganisms are so numerous that ninety-nine percent of the DNA in and on our bodies is actually microbial DNA, and not mummy’s and daddy’s. There’s millions and millions of these things. So many that when you look into a mirror, the image you are seeing has ten times more microbial cells than human! Mind-blowing stuff. Add to that the fact that even the mitochondrion within our individual cells (the 1%) have their own independent genome, independent to our cell’s nucleus DNA, and it is also much more akin to the DNA of bacteria than to human. (Who knew, there is an Occupy The Body revolution going on).

For me these are more than scientific curios to quote at cocktail parties (though they are impressive conversation fodder). They have further helped me rethink my ‘elitist’ relationship with my body and the world. Is my body mine or ours? Am I in fact an ecosystem, not an individual? 

The other day I was looking at photos of myself as a child. I had no doubt that cute kid is me, but a friend commented, “Is that really you?” I have to admit my face today has changed radically from the image of that boy. Perhaps it is much more accurate to say that my body is like that river. I mean, there is that old, Guru’s saying that watching the mind is like stepping into a river: never the same water. Isn’t the body also like that? The contents change, even the shape changes, but still we give the same name to the river because of its continuos flow. Except in the case of the body, the flow is so gradual that one barely notices the movement. Usually. When I woke from my coma I had the hardest time accepting my reflection. I had skipped two weeks of time, and it seemed to me my long beard had sprouted instantly. I had lost so much weight my legs and arms looked like someone else’s. The meds had changed my skin tone. I would look at my reflection and ask, “Who the hell are you?”

A more healing question might have been: “Who do you belong to?” This changes how we think about illness. The virus within my body is no longer an interloper, but an immigrant that I must help assimilate. There is even evidence that all these little microbes in our bodies also affect our moods and behavior. In which case, does ‘being upset’ really mean an imbalance within this microsystem? Might it explain a sudden feeling of being blue for no good reason?

Embracing this notion of my body as ‘ours’ opens up the whole world. Not only does the issue of race become redundant, but even other species are no longer alien. One feels whole with the grass, the tress and the birds that live in them.

So if I am not the temple’s deity, then who am I? What is my function within this river’s ecosystem? Perhaps, I am the sun: my presence vitalizes this microsystem. That I AM

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