I am brooding over my son’s latest MRI results, and his surgeon’s recommendation for another operation on his knee. The injury first ended his golf season. Then, nagging symptoms post-surgery ended his basketball season. Now, a second arthroscopy will erase his tennis season and threatens to encroach on the rigors of his summer basketball schedule.
In the long view, of course, it’s merely one slow curve along hundreds of miles of straight road interspersed with a lifetime of dips and hills and switchbacks and detours. In the short view, the one on which it is easier to focus, the road itself is obscured by the dense fog of teenage dreams vaporizing in real time.
With the precision of a surgeon my friend makes a tiny incision into my thoughts: “What would his body really want from him right now?”
What would his body want? The corpus knows a thousand ways to betray the anima, and this boy’s body has learned a few of those tricks. It discharged itself early from the womb and now rushes itself to perilous heights without first shoring up the joists (and joints) which must sustain it. He has the moves and dexterity of a seasoned athlete, straining against the encumbrance of a body always trying to catch up with itself.
I pinch the Windsor knot to a perfect dimple under the points of his black collar so he can sit packed in ice another night on the bench: a boy and his body lashed together with a blue silk tie, all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Even the body most fluent in the language of betrayal will communicate something of what it most deeply needs. But the body that has forgotten how to speak would seem less interested in betraying the soul than separating from it completely. This is the process Rebecca Solnit recounts in describing the way leprosy seeks to destroy a person, a process by which mind and body dissociate from one another through the absence of that siren we spend our lives looking to silence. We mute pain to our peril, it seems, for in the case of leprosy’s brutal assault, the rub is that “the disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of: not the disease, but the patient does the damage. You begin nicking, burning, bruising, abrading, and otherwise wearing out your fingers, toes, feet, hands, and then losing them.” (The Faraway Nearby, p. 102)
In the end, it’s not only hands and feet that are lost, but the self: “The nerveless part of the body remains alive, but pain and sensation define the self; what you cannot feel is not you…” Solnit quotes Lorca’s “Somnambule Ballad” to describe the detachment, Pero yo ya no soy yo, ni mi casa es mi casa. “But I am no more I, nor is my house still my house.” (p. 103)
Dr. Paul Brand worked with leprosy patients in India, witnessing firsthand young men who saw their hands as “no longer part of themselves, and his job was to teach them to take care of these insensible, alienated limbs with the kindness with which they might attend to someone else. … Brand wrote, ‘Sometimes I felt like a schoolmaster, with the odd sense that I was introducing the boys to their own limbs, begging their minds to welcome the insensitive parts of their bodies.’” (p. 103)
And as if retention of one’s sense of self were not sufficient in her apologetic for pain, Solnit goes on to make the case that it’s necessary for a sense of others, for development of empathy, for love itself:
Physical pain defines the physical boundaries of the self but these identifications define a larger self, a map of affections and alliances, and the limits of this psychic self are nothing more or less than the limits of love. Which is to say love enlarges; it annexes affectionately; at its utmost it dissolves all boundaries. (p. 107)
Which is to say, perhaps, that Nazareth was right: Love Hurts.
We’re reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby together. This week we read the chapters 5-7, in which Solnit wrote of empathy, of the disintegration that opens space for growth, of the way weavers (like storytellers) make form from formlessness, and as I’ve written here of the need for pain in defining and retaining a sense of the self. What themes in the reading echoed in your own thoughts? Perhaps you’d share with us in the comments, or if you wrote a post on your own website, feel free to share a link.
We’d love for you to join us again next week for chapters 8-10.
Wednesday, February 19: The Stories We Tell Ourselves (Chapters 1-4)
Wednesday, February 26: Bodies, Betrayal and Love Chapters 5-7
Wednesday, March 5: Chapters 8-10
Wednesday, March 12: Chapters 11-13
Buy The Faraway Nearby now