If you raise a totally healthy boy and a girl, help them through their fevers and colds, provide them with healthcare if they get strep throat or a severe flu, I believe they will not relate to their bodies in the same way when they are seventeen.
The female will be more in tune with hers than the male. Why, you may ask. Well, early on she learns about menstruation. Well yes, you respond, but males have things happening to them too! Yes, that’s true. But the girl is better prepared to live in her body. Why, you ask again. Because she becomes familiar with blood.
WE LEARN TO LIVE IN THE WORLD
From our first breath, we live inside our bodies. As babies we lie in wonder of air and light, the beginnings of sight and sound, as we gradually determine that our mothers are not part of us–but that our hand is. And that we have these two appendages we learn are our legs with other appendages we learn are our feet. My daughter Christine was toeing in at six months and had to wear special shoes to prevent a future problem. Did she fuss? No. At that time, it was all part of the progression of living.
As babies, we learn that sucking with the mouth nourishes us, that crying brings comfort and warm touches.
We have no language to define any of this, but we have instinct and that drives our need for food, comfort, warmth and dryness. If these needs are not met, we know how to kick and scream. After all, we came into this world kicking and screaming, and if fortunate, we were immediately given warmth, comfort and eventually food.
BECOMING MORE INDEPENDENT
The developing infant is not aware of the need to urinate and defecate. It is only through growth, the awareness of being wet and uncomfortable, that increases awareness of the body and helps our parents teach us good toilet habits.
Hunger and thirst determine how we experience the hours of the day. We cry for the breast or the bottle. We wake up when we are hungry, and as we grow, we might even climb on a rickety stool to get to the cookie jar.
Hunger is that first human drive that establishes some sense of time in our lives, but then begins the long process of establishing balance and moderation. Even children can over-eat, leading to weight-gain, poor coordination and poor self-image. (But note, the inability to eat wisely can be a problem throughout life, one that hinders health and can lead to health problems and even early death.)
Another capability of humans is adaptation. If we lose a leg or an arm, over time we learn to adapt to that loss. We might have a prosthetic device to aid us, but the very fact of losing part of one’s anatomy demands a great deal of physical and psychic energy to grasp at life, to go on. But surely, humans are survivors.
A deaf child compensates by placing hands on the throat of a speaking person to feel the vibrations. Blind children use their hands to explore the world and turn their heads to pick up the sounds that alert them to the world around them. But compensation is not a good idea in an adult who truly is having difficulty seeing or hearing but refuses to wear glasses or hearing aids.
A chronically ill child will not accept a parent saying that he or she is “just fine.” Deep within the psyche, the child will put things together, and often better accept this change in his or her life than the parents. Honesty is the best way to go.
AGING AND ACCEPTANCE
What I do question, and would love your thoughts concerning this—is that as we age, why does our ability to accept death and dying become even harder for us? It is the long span of health, independence, and our functioning that disallows us to acknowledge that we are mortal and that we will die? As Wordsworth wrote in his poem, Intimation of Immortality, maybe children do arrive in this world:
But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Or is it because children do not have as firm a stake in the world as adults have. Throughout life, all of us must compensate and adapt. Sometimes it is only for a short while.
I wore bandages on both eyes for a week after eye surgery. I was only five. A friend developed MS, Multiple Sclerosis. Her ability to compensate and adapt now colors her entire life. If we lose an arm, we are still the same person. That hasn’t changed us.
Nor have the scars of a traffic accident or a fire–we are integrally the same person, now needing to sorrow over our loss, go through the struggle to adjustment, form that altered person we now present to the world, though inside we have not truly changed. And it is horrible and wrong when someone might label us, the speaker doing so to distance himself from what could also happen to him–a human and deep-seated fear.
DEALING WITH PHYSICAL DIFFERENCES
Maybe we instinctively know that our bodies are fragile. From the beginning, we crave distance from the pain and suffering of others. But as a child, I did not realize I could give pain to someone else when I wanted to look away from their suffering.
Maybe I found my way into nursing to better understand that reaction, to acknowledge, to be more open. I believe that each of us, no matter the shape of our body, the losses or problems we might live with, deserves the acknowledgement of a whole human being. Thus I have learned not to run and open doors for the handicapped, unless explicitly asked to do so. Once I approached a blind man, telling him that the usual entrance to the mall was blocked by decorations. He whirled on me, told me he knew exactly where he was going. I had invaded his space. In that particular situation, I was wrong.
Do we take for granted our bodies and how to care for them?
Thanks to Artistic Anatomy for the lovely art.