Hospitals and Bodies

NewYorkPresbyterian-Cornell.jpgNewYork–Presbyterian Hospital in New York City

In the last few weeks I have spent a lot of time visiting hospitals. There is something about being in a hospital, even as a mere visitor, which transports you to a different world. Of course you could say the same of churches, theatres, casinos,  sports stadiums, or jails. Churches are filled with both hope and absurdity, theatres with people who want to escape, casinos and stadiums with mindless distractions, jails with utter hopelessness and despair. Perhaps where they take you to is better or worse than where you came from.

But hospitals are unique; they smell of death, disease and dysfunction. Within their walls you encounter the consequences of being bodies; you encounter the earthiness and the ugliness of human bodies and their generated minds. You encounter humanity. Let no one deceive you; the encounter is, at once, both humbling and distasteful. Imagine then what it must be like to be a patient. Yes, there are good people trying to help you, but eventually they will fail. You have, perhaps for the first time, noticed mortality. As a patient, you have literally been transported from the world of the living, to the world of the dying.

It is easy to see then why our culture idolizes youthful, vital bodies and minds. They glow, they seem immortal. Their skin has no wrinkles, their backs are not hunched, their hair has not thinned, their brains work quickly. But those youthful bodies and brains are decaying before our eyes, and even some wisdom and patience do come to them, they will ultimately fail. The process is not pretty; aging is not for sissies.

Being in a hospital makes me wonder why people are so attached to their bodies.  Tell them you are a transhumanist, who looks forward to a genetically engineered or robotic body, or a life without a body in a computer generated reality, and they retreat in horror. I think if they spent more time in hospitals, they might change their minds. There is nothing noble about having the bodies and brains of modified monkeys; nothing much good about being controlled by bodies and brains forged in the Pleistocene. Perhaps that’s why human being deceive themselves, they don’t want to know what they really are, they want to believe they are angels. But they are not. As Shakespeare put it:

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.

The world should make us weep; it would make the gods and angels weep if there were any. But there are not. There are only modified apes, with the authority over the survival of an entire planet. I want to be more than a modified monkey. How I wish we could all be more. Let us not pause then, let us go forward. I’ll let Walt Whitman have the last word.

This day before dawn I ascended a hill,
and look’d at the  crowded heaven,
And I said to my Spirit,
When we become the enfolders of those orbs,
and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in them,
shall we be fill’d and satisfied then?
And my Spirit said:
No, we but level that lift,
to pass and continue beyond.

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