Go With the Flow
In one of my favorite movies, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the Commander of a U.S. Air Force base is so crazy that he not only orders an atomic attack on Russia, but he believes that Fluoridation is an enemy attempt to poison our “precious bodily fluids.”
Those fluids have been running through my mind long after the other Commie plots in it have dried up. I think first of Winston Churchill, becoming the British Prime Minister at one of the darkest times of the Second World War, telling his country that he had nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears. Actually, he was not offering, but requiring these metaphorical liquids, which of course have had meaning and impact, ever since there were human bodies and languages to celebrate their contents.
Blood, in this context, has significance only when it becomes visible, i.e., when it is “shed,” presumably in conflict. Some eighty years earlier than Churchill’s chilling but somehow rousing declaration, Otto Von Bismarck, a politically equivalent leader of what was then Prussia (twice in the next century to become Britain’s chief enemy) also used “blood” in a major speech to his country’s legislature. On that occasion he linked it, not with sweat and tears, but with the metal which (besides gold) probably has always had the greatest symbolic value – iron. What he said was, in effect, that the great questions of the day would be decided, not by speeches and majority decisions, but by BLOOD AND IRON. And, indeed, it was only by a subsequent series of wars, under Bismarck’s leadership, that Germany became united and the strongest power in continental Europe.
Sweat — also known, in polite discourse, as perspiration – is of course symbolic of hard work — which used to be known as Labor, until that became a political term, giving a name to movements such as Britain’s Labor Party, and workers’ alliances such as the “American Federation of Labor.” (In German the equivalent word — arbeit — has come to have more sinister connotations – being indeed part of the official name of the “Nazi” Party, which was: the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.” And it is hard to forget the ominous irony of the slogan erected at the entrance to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz: “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” meaning, “Work Sets You Free.”
As for tears, there seems to be no clear scientific agreement as to just what evolutionary purpose they serve. The liquid drops themselves, depending on circumstances, can be part of a whole complex of convulsive emotional expressions, many of them audible, including what we call sobbing, wailing, and bawling. Most of us have experienced some variations of these symptoms, starting with our very first moments in this world. We are virtually born crying — but then we have to learn how to laugh.
Traditionally, weeping has been associated more with women than with men – which makes historic instances of men in tears more notable. There is, for example, the story, attributed to Plutarch, that when Alexander the Great was shown the extent of his conquests, he wept, because there were no new worlds to conquer. I personally savor this (albeit somewhat dubious) story because it gave the title to the third book by a travel writer who inspired generations of young people (of whom I was one) to go out into the world seeking adventure. It was Richard Halliburton’s New Worlds to Conquer.
The Bible has some very moving passages concerning weeping, including the part in the story of Joseph who, after being sold into slavery by his brothers, encounters those same brothers seeking aid in Egypt years later, after he himself has risen to a powerful position there. He knows who they are, but they don’t recognize him. To avoid revealing his feelings, he has to go into a separate room, to weep privately.
But perhaps the most tear-jerking Biblical passage comes in Psalm 137 which is about the exile of the Hebrew people in Babylonia. It begins:
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
(“Zion,” was, of course, and still is, Jerusalem.)
But I’ve hardly space to inflict on you a discussion of saliva, mucus, and all our other “precious bodily fluids.” Let me just tell you that, in whatever form, sixty percent of the entire adult human body is water. For now, that ought to wrap it up – or wring it out.