My dogs mean a great deal to me; the thought of hurting them is literally unthinkable. Yet until recently I often hurt my body, even though it also means a lot to me. It wasn’t uncommon for me to exercise so vigorously my neck ached. If nervous, I would eat sugary treats even though my blood sugar is already borderline. I’d sit for long hours at a computer even though doing so harms my spine.
Although I still have trouble with that last one, I’m trying to quit punishing my body.
This goes against social norms, which show little sympathy for the long-suffering human body. An athlete or fashion model who subjects his or her body to punishing workouts is admired, not reviled. The executive, physician, attorney, or software engineer who works nonstop, eats poorly, and doesn’t exercise is seldom criticized, at least not for mistreating the body. The organism, it seems, is disposable.
But of course, it’s not. We are issued a human body at birth, and it’s the only one we get. We can’t buy another at Walmart and toss the old one into a landfill. Unlike consumer goods, unlike many spouses, the body is with us unto death.
When we harm the body—whether through aggressive exercise, grinding overwork, dreadful nutrition, dangerous medical treatments, toxic habits, or dumb choices—only two outcomes are possible: either the body heals completely, or it doesn’t. If healing is incomplete, then the damage will be with us for the rest of our lives.
What better reason could there be to cease all that punishment? Well, I can think of one: because deliberately harming those we love is (or should be) unthinkable.
MindfulBiology encourages friendlier and more compassionate mind-body relationships, and its motivation is love and admiration for the human organism. Yes, it makes sense from a competitive standpoint to treat the body kindly: a well-tended body will help us succeed. But it makes more sense to treat it properly because we care about its welfare. After all, we don’t nurture our family members and pets well because of what they can do for us.
Improving how we interact with our bodies implies less punishment. We do well to approach food, rest, workouts, occupation, and hobbies with an eye toward minimizing bodily harm. Nearly everything we do has an impact on the body. It isn’t possible to completely avoid wear-and-tear, but we can avoid accruing it needlessly. In some cases, we may choose to work more than is healthy; but shouldn’t we be sure what’s produced warrants the (body’s) sacrifice? For instance, would we want to injure ourselves for a company that pollutes the environment? It’s one thing to suffer for a good cause; it’s another to suffer for a bad one.
Our society raised us to disregard the body’s welfare except when there is material consequence. We are trained to care about what the body can do for us, not about the body itself. This is misguided. (It may explain why breaking bad habits seems so hard, even when we know they cause illness. For instance, for years I wanted to quit drinking coffee. I knew it wasn’t good for my sleep and energy patterns, while insomnia and fatigue made it hard for me to stay productive. But I never seemed able to get much traction; I’d stop for a short time and then start up again. But once I started looking at my coffee drinking as harming a body I loved, rather than worrying about its effects on my productivity, cutting out the beverage became relatively easy. These days I rarely drink coffee, and only when exceptionally tired. Love is a good motivator.)
We need to care about the body, and it doesn’t hurt to show the body we care. What better way to build a good relationship with it? An important early step in relationship-building must be to stop the punishment. In the next post I’ll offer suggestions for how to quit treating the body badly.