So Long As You’re Healthy

 

Asclepius, God of Healing
Fragment of mosaic in Roman public bath, 2nd-3rd century, Kyustendil

So Long As You’re Healthy

Of course I’m not referring to the pandemic.  We’re all suffering from that.  I’m looking at the larger question of health — starting with my own, since I know its story best.

How did I get to be as healthy as I am? (I mean apart from my neuropathy — a totally unwelcome fact, for which I’ve got no explanation.)  But there are a lot of painful or jeopardizing conditions from which, as of this present hour, I am not suffering.  So why not?  Do I have an explanation that could shed a wider light on this interesting question of personal health?

In the philosophy of mind, relations between mind and body have come to be called “the hard problem.” For the dominant school of thought, only physical stuff is real, so of course the existence of consciousness has to be a hard problem.  Since I don’t believe that only physical stuff is real, I don’t have what physicalists call the hard problem.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy for me (or anyone) to navigate the sometimes stormy relations between the body that is mine and the “I” of which I’m conscious.

A few years ago, I had cataract surgery.  At the pre-op visit, my surgeon insisted I watch a film that showed in living color all the unintended bad consequences I’d be risking.  She was mounting her advance defense against a malpractice suit, just in case the operation should prove unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, I was thinking,

Is she CRAZY?

Does she imagine that scaring me to death can have no bad effects on how the surgery comes out?  Does she actually believe the mind has no effect on the body?  Why would she believe that?  They’re living in the same place.  My eyes are in my head and, according to her, my mind’s in my head too.  They’ll never pass each other in the hall?

Anyway, the struggle to live as well as one can in one’s body is inescapable.  I am so constituted that every emotion, within and around me, feels like a wave pounding through permeable membrane. Given an emotional/perceptual system like mine, I could expect my digestive pipes to look like a smoking train wreck.  Instead, on most days, I have the alimentary canal of a healthy six-year-old.

Well, how did that happen?  Glad you asked.  It took a lot of thought and a lot of work.  When I was 22, I went to gastro-intestinal specialists.  They told me to accept the train wreck because I was not a 16-year-old anymore!  Okay guys.  Thanks.  You should all live and be well.

Some years later, I consulted a French psychic.  She ignored the mental factor entirely but did recommend 75 high colonics.  Nowadays this garden-hose-at-the-other-end procedure gets the more genteel name of “hydro-therapy.”  Call it what you will, the Frenchwoman also predicted precisely what the hose would encounter.  Fait accompli.  I got the insides of a healthy six-year-old.

I had no more problems of that kind until, more recently, I found myself in a totally unexpected struggle to oust a predator from a religious institution I greatly valued.  The situation was mainly unexpected because I consider myself a fairly seasoned philosophe whose fine savoir faire has been able tactfully to discourage unwelcome advances of many kinds without making a federal case out of any of them.  This guy turned rejection into counter-attack in a way that was new to me.  When I saw that others had been targeted too, I resolved to fight it out.

I was however worried that I might not weather it.  One has a responsibility to one’s body.  I prayed about that.

“Lord, You know I’m fragile.  This could wreck my insides.”

The answer came before I could draw another breath:

“Never mind that now.

Get this scum out of My house!”

Oh.  Okay.  That settled the question for me.  But although the eventual outcome was what I had been fighting for, it was achieved in a way that seemed both unkind and disrespectful toward me as accuser.

That is not uncommon in such cases, but I felt deeply wounded and offended.  The feeling didn’t go away and meanwhile the intestinal train wreck returned.  Oh dear, I thought.  The bad guys have won after all.  I hate when that happens!

One morning at our brunch, I described my symptoms to Jerry, telling him that the incident would invade consciousness when I woke in the morning or in the night.  In daylight, it was becoming the default position of my mind.  As the months went by, it was getting worse, not better.

“It sounds like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” Jerry said.  “Didn’t we read a book on trauma?”

“That’s right!  In An Unspoken Voice, was the title!” I said.  “I’m gonna try to remember his method.”

The author, Peter A. Levine, had noted that animals in the wild have narrow escapes all the time, yet they bounce back.  Unless they’re in human environments, they go right back to their animal lives.  What do animals know, that we don’t?  They know how to perceive.  They know how not to talk.

We need to scroll back in memory to the first instant when the bad thing happened.  The cure lies there, in the moment before interpretation.

I decided draw memory back to the traumatic denouement of the whole encounter.  I learned two things: the bad guy was leaving but I would be treated as a bad guy too.  How did that scene look to me before I thought about it?

In the first instant, it looked entirely different.  It looked like a win – an extraordinary victory for the good guys, starting with me!

And the blanket of defeat?  That descended a few seconds later.  It was an interpretation, based on comparing it with what I judged to be the appropriate – the ideal — ending.

Once I perceived that first instant, the memory stopped haunting me.  The PTSD went away!  And the train wreck of my alimentary canal?  What happened to those pipes?  Well kids, believe it or not (and I can scarcely believe it myself) –

they’re back to being the pipeline

of a healthy six-year-old.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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