catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 22 :: 2009.11.13 — 2009.11.26


Contain yourself!

Controlling the flows of mortality

In one of my favorite plays, Wit, the audience spends most of the play bedside with a woman whose body is succumbing to stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer.  She is a John Donne scholar and so feels confident at the outset about her ability to use her wit and intelligence to control any emotional unraveling as she confronts her own physical demise.  She has allowed a former student to use her case for research and experimental treatment.  One of research requirements is a careful measurement of the fluids that go in and come out of her body.   In one scene, she has just barfed in front of us all, but can retain some sense of dignity because the vomit is important for the research:   “Now watch this.  I have to ring the bell (she presses the button on the bed) to get someone to come and measure this emesis, and record the amount on the chart of my intake and output.  This counts as output.” 

An episode of the television show Glee included a story line that taught me a little about the dread that men have, especially in their teenage years, for experiencing a loss of control when they are sexually aroused.  The high school student in this storyline would try to control himself from having an “accident” by recalling a car accident to his memory.  During a make-out scene, the boy runs off in mortification because he realizes he has ejaculated in his pants. The girl is clueless as to what has happened and sits there dejected, assuming he found her to be an awful kisser.  I suspect she would have empathized with him if she had known the truth.  How many times has every high school girl whispered, “Check me,” to her friend after a long sitting-down, worried about the dreaded possibility that her menstrual blood has seeped through to outer clothing?

Occasionally I find myself in the middle of two or three books at the same time, which makes me annoyed at myself.  Sometimes, though, the juxtaposition makes for a synthesis of topics that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.   Last week brought two very different books, but they complement each other as they mention how humans deal with the reality that bodies routinely discharge various fluids and chunks.   Rodney Clapp, in his book Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels, mentions in his third paragraph already that much of the human condition and the purpose of civilization and enculturation is bound up in experiencing and containing “the constant sheddings and emissions of the body.”  Decorum and hygiene make this necessary, but we also have to admit that bodily emissions remind us that we as physical beings are limited by Mortality, Death and Decay.   Our lack of control with regard to these biggies makes us even more eager to control and contain such normal secretions as tears, sweat and urine. 

The other book I was reading, The Drama of the Gifted Child, took a more sinister tone because it theorizes what happens in the early years to damage a child’s mental health when a caregiver “expects her child to control his bodily functions as early as possible.” The author and analyst, Alice Miller, relates a few examples of people who were taught forcefully at a very young age that they must control themselves.  Miller writes, “His father was very proud of him, and even when he beat him as punishment for some misdemeanor reported by the mother, he was proud that his son did not cry.  Since tears brought extra blows, the child learned to suppress them and was himself proud that he could make his admired father such a great present with his bravery.” And another example: “If he wet his trousers he had to wear a red dress all day so that everybody would know what he had done and he would have to be ashamed of himself.” 

My three-year-old is still nonchalantly peeing and pooping in her pink princess Pull-Ups with only a few signs of being ready for dedicated potty use.  My two-year-old lets his snot flow freely. It will hang in suspension from his nostril if it is thick enough, or he’ll lick it up if it runs down to his mouth before I reach him with a tissue. My eleven-year-old is showing very little interest in changing his underwear or applying underarm deodorant or using the shower.  The toddlers let tears trail down their cheeks several times throughout each day.  Yes, I know one of my jobs is to teach them how to care for their bodies, so they can eventually wipe themselves up and observe social expectations with the help of tissues, toilets, soap and anti-perspirant.   But another of my jobs is to look upon children and be reminded that their lack of preoccupation with controlling and containing their own bodily fluids is an object lesson akin to these words: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 

I wrote an Easter poem this past spring that paid special attention to the bodily fluids that would have been present at Nativity and Crucifixion. I have been learning that so much about the scandal and relief of the Christian gospel is the messy bodily reality of Christ’s birth and death and resurrection.  The poem was banned from use at my church for the Good Friday and Easter services it was written for, and I took that as reassurance that the scandal of the gospel ran through it.  My minister told me a few weeks later that one reason that he found the poem questionable is because it implied that Jesus might have excreted feces at some point during his beatings, cross-dying or time of death.  He told me that he could not believe that God would lose control of himself in that shameful way. 

It may be too scary for us to look upon a Good-Friday-God on the cross who has entered the human condition so fully that he would give up the freedom, or ability, or — is it possible? — the control to expel his waste in a manly, private or relatively dignified manner.  But we can start, I guess, by noticing that Jesus worked up a sweat in the garden, Jesus wiped his spit on a blind man, and Jesus — thank the Lord! — let his tears flow freely at the grave of his friend.   And we can be sure that a closer-to-Christmas-God toddled around wetting and soiling himself, licking up his own unwiped snot, and crying for mom to hold him because he bumped himself yet again.  Even on our more mundane travels through the valley of the shadow of death — our coughs and sniffles, sweat stains, leaking milk-ducts and various indignities of incontinence — we can keep finding comfort in a God-With-Us kind of God.

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