My Imperfect Body

When I was young, I believed my body to be functionally perfect. I wished at the time that it were better-looking, and especially for it to have less pimples, but I thought it was functionally fine, most of the time.

I suppose I thought it perfect in the sense that it could do anything that I could reasonably expect it to do. It couldn’t attract girls like Robert Redford, run as fast as Sebastian Coe or be as muscly as Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it could run, jump, talk, dance, sing, read, write and do all the things seen by many as prerequisites to a full life.

Whenever I incurred an injury, there seemed to always be a potential horror lest the injury should lead to a permanent degradation of my body’s capability. One could tolerate a temporary loss of use of a limb, courtesy of a sprain or cut, but the idea of permanent loss of use was too horrific to contemplate. When I injured myself, the first thing that occurred to me was ‘I hope it’s nothing permanent‘.

Although I might have been less than Robert Redford in some schoolboyish calculus of value, I didn’t want to be reduced to less than I was at present.

Indeed, I expected my body to get better – stronger, faster, fitter, taller, less pimpled – and it generally did, up to the mid-twenties, maybe even longer than that for some activities, like long-distance running.

It was an obsessive attitude – like somebody that has a new car and is terrified that it might get a tiny scratch. It’s not that I spent time worrying about it. It was just that whenever an injury happened there was that sudden concern lest there be a permanent scratch.

The analogy isn’t a good one though, because scars were one change that I was perfectly prepared to accept. As long as they didn’t affect my body’s ability to function, and weren’t on my face, I was happy to accumulate scars. I suppose I imagined that they made me seem more manly. I have a dent in my right quadricep from running into a wire fence in the dark in 1987, a dent in my scalp from ducking insufficiently as I ran through a gap in a wrought-iron fence in 1996, a gouge in my left shin from slamming it into the iron footrest on the milk truck I worked on in 1979, when I slipped as I ran up to it, and from 1980 a scar across my right palm where I slipped with a milk bottle that then broke and stuck into my hand (Don’t ever let anyone tell you that running is a safe sport). I have many more scars, but those are the most noteworthy ones. And they’re only visual blemishes. They have no impact on function.

So it came as a shock the first time I had to accept a permanent loss of capacity. I’m not exactly sure when this shock was. It may have been in 2000 after an operation that was less successful than I would have hoped. That was like the first crack in the dyke, and the flood soon started coming through. A few years later I obtained my first pair of reading glasses and now I can barely read anything less than two metres away.

Fortunately, one’s concern about losing function seems to diminish in inverse proportion to the rate of loss of function. Once the new vehicle is a little scratched, one doesn’t worry so much about subsequent scratches.

Now of course, the vehicle is slowing down as well. A hard half-hour time-trial run for me now is much slower than a casual, conversational one-hour cruise jog was twenty years ago. But after a while, one comes to terms with it. It doesn’t worry me (I do wonder how I’ll cope when one of the wheels falls off though, or the transmission breaks).

And with the diminishing concern comes the realisation that my body was never functionally perfect anyway. It seems less dire to deteriorate from an already imperfect position than to suddenly lose perfection.

I wonder if there is anyone in this world of seven billion people that is entirely happy with how their body works – the digestion perfect, teach uncavitied, sleep easily achievable each night, anxiety, shyness or embarrassment never a problem; and for females: a regular, painless and easily manageable menstrual cycle. Out of seven billion bodies there must be one that has fewer problems than anybody else. But I imagine that even that one has some small challenges.

And all bodies will deteriorate as they age. Even if biologists eventually find the answer to programmed cell death, so that there’s no longer such a malady as ‘just getting old’, we’ll all still gradually accumulate permanent damage from our interactions with rocks, roads, fences and milk bottles. Fortunately, it seems that as we age we also learn better how to accept at least some damage with equanimity.

Andrew Kirk
Bondi Junction, June 2015