The Innocence of the Human Body

artwork by Andy Boerger

…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, Francis 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 an obsession; 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 perhaps 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 consider the intricate mechanical wonder he inhabits, or the magnificence that goes far beyond the skin layer. That brings to mind a story I heard about a scuba diver, who, seated next to a friend who looked out at the ocean at sunrise and remarked upon how beautiful it was, replied, “yes; and that’s only the roof!”

In modern society, 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 them for signs of resultant flab, and hold them 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 possibly the correct answer should be the one that functions best — the one that digests, eliminates, breathes, repairs, etc. most efficiently. But who cares about that? Just show us the ‘roof’!

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 them by the millions. Our so-callled “defense industry” would perhaps be looked upon less favorably if it were referred to, more honestly, as “the body destroying industry”. Although it (sadly and shamefully) has numerous competitors, perhaps the most atrocious and obscene example of this in all human history was the Treblinka II Death Camp in Nazi Germany. Here was the Industrial Revolution meets Dante’s Inferno. For the first time in history a factory was built, an actual industrial complex complete 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.

Yet, 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 produce, 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? How did this intelligence come about? Perhaps the answer will someday be found in a portion of our DNA that had formerly been considered “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 many of us treat our bodies we would be considered negligent, at the very least. 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 extends one outrage to two.

I am only writing to say that human bodies are innocent. We have yet, as a species, to demonstrate our worthiness to inhabit them. At the very least, we have to start by appreciating them more. We should never harm them in any way.