What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, II.ii
The human body is, indeed, a miraculous piece of work. Though diminutive and defenseless at birth, we humans are fundamentally equipped from the start to handle the requisite chores of metabolism, growth, and auto-regulation built into our core systems.
Beginning from just two cells, we develop into a complex organism with interconnected channels for nutrient and oxygen delivery; pumps, factories, filters, and warehouses; and sophisticated communication networks—all self-repairing, and all coordinated by a master computer.
There’s a term, homeostasis, which describes the body’s predisposition to maintain a stable equilibrium between its complex interdependent elements. Specific examples are our stable body temperatures, and our stable acid-base balance; blood pressure and glucose levels are both regulated by complex, interconnected, and self-correcting processes as well. Throughout our lifetimes, our bodies work tirelessly toward maintaining homeostasis.
We have duplicate organs; mechanisms to generate new cells; and built-in checks and balances. Our circulatory and respiratory systems supply energy twenty-four hours each day. The digestive system turns what we eat and drink into usable molecules for the important work of organs and tissues. The forgiving filters in our livers and kidneys do their best to clear impurities and toxins from us.
The nervous system, composed of brain, spinal cord, and nerves, uses its complex interconnections to orchestrate all the body’s activities. Remarkably, the brain itself literally ‘masterminds’ all these operations using its billions of neurons. Ever vigilant and resilient, our miraculous bodies are constantly working to balance and self-repair.
Yet, we frequently abuse and misuse this amazing gift we inhabit. We under-exercise and over-indulge in food and drink. We stress our immune systems with too little sleep and adrenalin-charged lifestyles. The excess calories, ingestion of chemicals such as alcohol and nicotine, and sedentary lifestyles take a cumulative toll.
The photograph accompanying this article is another of my Dad’s carvings. He titled it “The Patient,” and gifted a replica of this carving to his own Internist. Though not quite a self-portrait, this whimsical little man indeed possesses some resemblance to my father in his late 60s.
As I reflect on these wonderful bodies of ours, I realize how often we take them for granted when we are young, full of vitality and invincibility. As we age, we tend to appreciate them more and usually make efforts to treat them more respectfully and intentionally. And, then, slowly but surely, we are forced to acknowledge the infirmities and limitations that come with wear and time—with lives often well lived. Ah, the traumatic joy of being human!
Unfortunately, we arrive with no owner’s manual and certainly no warranty! Fortunately for most of us, our bodies are generously forgiving and incredibly efficient in self-repair. Thankfully, opportunities to learn from poor body ownership choices are ubiquitous.
I’ll close with an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s poem, Evidence. Her words speak to the magic and the majesty of our bodies. Each of us truly is a unique, living work of art.
As for the body, it is solid and strong and curious
and full of detail: it wants to polish itself; it
wants to love another body; it is the only vessel in
the world that can hold, in a mix of power and
sweetness: words, song, gesture, passion, ideas,
ingenuity, devotion, merriment, vanity, and virtue.
S.L. Hines, MD