Body Talk

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   April 18, 2023

One piece of medical advice we’re often given is to “listen to your body.” It is also one of the most confusing and misleading. My body does not know who I am or where I live. It was designed by a proverbial “blind watchmaker” named Evolution over the course of untold eons.

My body has nothing to say to me, no matter how carefully I listen to it. For instance, when it yawns (which it seems to like doing in spasms) there is no clear message, but a dozen contradictory ones, ranging from intense boredom to deep contentment.

But let us get down to ground zero, so to speak, and ask what feet are saying. Of course, it’s not that simple – ask any foot specialist. Not only are there (usually) five different toes on two different feet – but those feet are separated from each other by two major body parts called legs, whose interests may be vastly different. Left legs and right legs are hardly on speaking terms.

Then there are the hands and fingers, the eyes and ears – mysterious twosomes born somewhere in the strange country called Symmetry.

But we have no corresponding duos in Front and Back—which would have been enormously convenient for mobility and safety. No rear-view mirror to warn us about what’s coming up behind. 

Ears are specially peculiar, apparently designed for no particular function – and that’s just the outer visible part. No wonder so many people have hearing problems. We must not forget about noses, although – as a general rule – we have only one of them, albeit with two of those funny holes called nostrils. 

Then there is the whole eating and eliminating apparatus, otherwise known as the digestive system, most of whose parts – from the mouth to the other end – are apportioned to us humans in the singular, while other creatures, such as cows, are endowed with several.

But that is only one of several systems in which we resemble cars, with their own systems of brakes, cooling, steering, and fueling. With us, there’s the blood supply, known as the “circulation,” the air supply, known as breathing, and the supply of intelligence, centered in a very unlovely two-sided organ called the brain, with a function known as thinking.

And we are supposed to listen to all this, and somehow make sense of it. Maybe we should start with something relatively easy, like listening to our teeth and fingernails and toenails. One of my epigrams makes somewhat the opposite statement. It says that:

“Nothing is more quiet than the sound of hair going gray.”

Unfortunately, the loudest sound that emanates from the body is something called “Pain.” It can come from almost any part, and sometimes (alas!) from several parts at once. 

But how are we to listen to that body part called “hair”? So numerous and widespread, and for the most part painless, “hair” tends to cluster in certain areas, some of which are very sensitive. But “hair” also has a habit of dropping out, dropping off, or however you want to put it – abandoning us; rarely to be tempted back. Indeed, this “baldness” is a strange phenomenon, particularly being related to age, gender, and even to ethnicity.

And what about skin, that most ubiquitous body organ? I don’t know how to hear mine, especially because some parts are much more visible (or audible?) than others. That must be why your dermatologist doesn’t usually wear a stethoscope. But, as some great epigrammatist once remarked, “My biggest problem with my skin is trying to control what’s inside it.”

Which brings us to the expression “Flesh and Blood,” a commonly used term distinguishing the human from the non-human. It also indicates a close relationship. Among its many applications, we find in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, a whole plot hinging on a promise to pay a debt with “a pound of flesh.” In the play, the Merchant, Antonio, has contracted with a Jewish moneylender named Shylock – upon default of his debt – to pay Shylock a pound of his own flesh, specifically from the region of his body nearest to the heart. The heroine, in this case, turns out to be Portia, a friend of Shylock’s daughter Jessica – i.e. of his own flesh and blood – who successfully argues in Court that the contract talks about flesh, but says nothing about blood, creating a condition impossible to fulfill. 

If only our own flesh-and-blood children, and their friends, were always so eloquent!  


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