Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Configuration of the Body

I've been reading the recent posts on The Joy of Autism, in which Estée shares her thoughts on dealing with cancer and surgery. She doesn't mourn the loss of her fertility, she writes; rather, she feels blessed to have her son and her stepchildren.

Frankly, I've never seen the point of society's expectation that we should mourn the changes and constraints of our bodies. That idea strikes me as a peculiarly modern form of narcissism, a consequence of an artificial airbrushed culture in which we're all expected to look like glamorous 20-year-old models and athletes while chattering glibly about the latest celebrity gossip and sporting events. If we can't meet this arbitrary ideal (and very few people can), we're then expected to bemoan our tragic physical and mental flaws, like a flock of devout medieval parishioners listing their sins in the confessional. Those of us who pay for enough indulgences, in the form of trendy therapies and diets and counseling groups and whatnot, can hope to buy their way out of social purgatory.

Many years ago, when people still lived in small villages and understood their bodies to be part of the natural world, they had a much more reasonable outlook on aging and on physical and mental differences, accepting them as an ordinary part of life. There's a Pagan ceremony called croning, in which a woman reaching midlife celebrates becoming a crone—that is, a wise elder who is fortunate to have lived long enough to share her knowledge and experience with the younger generation.

Granted, the average lifespan wasn't very long in our ancestors' villages, and I'm not suggesting that we ought to remain in a primitive state of nature and fatalistically accept whatever happens to our bodies. We live in an era of amazing advances in medical science, and I'm very much in favor of taking advantage of these new discoveries to make our lives longer and more pleasant. However, I also believe that we need to think very carefully about just what we're trying to accomplish when we seek to change our bodies and brains. Are we making informed decisions based on our own personal values and preferences, or are we mindlessly following the herd?

We shouldn't simply assume that anything that limits some of our abilities is an undesirable constraint. Abilities, by their very nature, are also constraints, in that they preclude a vast universe of possible alternatives. When a young person who has a talent for music decides to master an instrument, for example, the amount of time required is likely to foreclose the possibility of becoming a varsity athlete. We all have many roads not taken in the rear-view mirror.

Changes and bodily limitations are inevitable as we go through life. When I was a young child, I very much enjoyed climbing trees. I liked having a small body that could easily reach the top branches, perching confidently on the thinnest limbs while counting the blue speckled eggs in a bird's nest. But, like everyone else, I had to grow up. Rather than mourning my loss of the treetops as a tragic misfortune, I was, like most young people, busy discovering other new and interesting activities.

Someday, not too far in the future, advances in bioengineering will allow us to replace our body parts quickly and easily with new components grown or built in a laboratory. There will be new drugs and cybernetic plug-ins that enable us to do whatever we want to do with our brains. We need to consider whether these new technologies will be used to increase self-determination and to broaden the diversity of human experience, or whether social pressure will constrain us to inhabit an ever-narrowing range of acceptable variation such that the diversity of our species vanishes.

Life, in all of its different configurations, gives us new discoveries and experiences that should be embraced, not mourned.

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  • Amen! I think the older I get the less I care what others think about how I look. That's not to say i don't take care of myself (well, most days!), but that I am at peace with the me I am at this stage in life. Wish it were so with more people.

    By Blogger Niksmom, at 3:07 PM  

  • If there is a future, cos for me none, with decreptitude and crepitus, notwithstanding I couldn't even remember sun tzu properly this evening, put a g in for gordon bennet's sake aaaaargh the hippocampus ain't what it was.

    By Blogger Larry Arnold PhD FRSA, at 4:45 PM  

  • So, you think we'll be able to plug some sensibility into the brains of the neurodiverse?

    By Blogger John Best, at 7:29 PM  

  • We live in an era of amazing advances in medical science, and I'm very much in favor of taking advantage of these new discoveries to make our lives longer and more pleasant. However, I also believe that we need to think very carefully about just what we're trying to accomplish when we seek to change our bodies and brains.

    Indeed. Which is why I think advocacy for longevity medicine should be focused first and foremost on helping people access and maintain decent healthcare at all phases of life, rather than on offering empty/superficial promises of "limitless youth".

    Even healthy, long-lived elderly people are still elderly, and will likely always need different care than people who are younger, just like how adults need different care than young children.

    Appealing to vanity and fear is not the way to improving healthcare -- respect for (and valuation of) different kinds of people of all ages seems a much better path to follow, IMO.

    By Blogger Anne Corwin, at 12:30 AM  

  • I will admit that I do not like all of the things aging is slowly doing to me. I am 46. I know people the same age and they are aging much better than I--it is all in the genes I guess.

    By Blogger A Bishops Wife, at 7:23 AM  

  • hey there abfh,

    loved your post. I agree, people are way too shallow these days about what really matters. so many girls want perfect bodies.....thats one reason eating disorders are very prevalent..it's also what people see on television and from Hollywood...

    foresam: your kind of sensibility? forget it. We already have enough problems with people being ignorant and misunderstanding, we don't need more.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:25 PM  

  • Wow, comparing wanting to look like a model to not wanting to be mentally weak. Maybe that would be funny if it wasn't so offensively crazy. Whatever happened to people not wanting others to be so much more able than them? It's true and you can't make that go away. Appearance isn't respected as the accomplishment of humanity. Ability is. Too bad it isn't shared evenly. If only these hyper-intelligent people would consider that people of low ability don't like living with the paternalistic smarter people who are privileged to be more enriched.

    By Blogger lurker, at 6:16 PM  

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