“What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?” ~Michelangelo
“Stop hunching! Stand up straight!” This is what I heard as a young child.
A running commentary on my appearance continued throughout my childhood. It was well intended, but not entirely helpful.
I grew self-conscious. If you’ve ever decided you’re too tall or too short or too fat or too thin, or that some parts of your body look unsatisfactory, you’ll understand.
Then I went to medical school. For a couple of years we studied the normal structure and functions of the body.
Over the next few years we studied tens of clinical subjects, peered down microscopes, learned about drugs and surgery, and examined thousands of patients. We were learning to diagnose and treat.
Studying the human body was a revelation. The more detailed our study grew, the more awesome the body seemed.
Most people take their bodies for granted. Only when a leg is broken or amputated, for example, do we start appreciating how amazing a normal leg is.
We often use the word “awesome” for food or music or other delightful stuff. However, your body truly puts the awe into “awesome.”
Think of a dazzling galaxy in space, or the most sophisticated machine you can imagine. Your body is even more awe-inspiring than either of those. And it constantly self-heals!
I think the human body deserves a love letter. I’m grateful for all these parts of me, and more:
It allowed me, as a little baby, to take a tangled jumble of strange syllables and assemble them into a language. It keeps my body going whether I’m asleep or awake. It will allow me to recall a childhood friend’s face vividly, even when I’m old and beautifully wrinkled.
Miraculously, it enables mere atoms and molecules to form opinions, have subjective experiences, make choices, fall in love, and forgive. I’ve fallen in love with many inanimate objects, from pianos to favorite chairs to gadgets to majestic mountains, but they’re unable to fall in love.
My brain helps me to separate fact from fiction, to solve problems, to enthuse, to grieve, to empathize, to create fanciful things such as new musical compositions, and to keep learning throughout my life.
Even when I’m asleep, it’s busy filing away memories, giving me vivid dreams, solving problems, and restoring me for the next day. It constantly heals and reforms itself, responding to my choices and habits.
It allows me to keep defining myself in new ways, coping with setbacks, escaping from the prison of past mistakes, focusing on the present, finding meaning and purpose, and greeting the future with hope and optimism.
I thank my brain by looking after my heart and blood vessels, which supply it with blood. I use a seatbelt when driving and a helmet when riding a bike to avoid damaging my brain. I also try to focus calmly on doing the next small step that is important and good in my life instead of anxiously trying to control whatever is unpredictable.
It started beating when I was less than six weeks in my mother’s womb. It will keep beating, lub-dup, lub-dup, lub-dup, for as long as it can. I fall asleep, wake up, feel happy, feel sad, succeed at some things, fail at other things, sometimes agree with people and sometimes disagree.
Through everything, my heart keeps pumping life-giving blood to my toes, brain, fingertips, and every part of my body. It responds to every situation, from the extreme stress of battle or danger, to the calm glow of relaxed affection, or the complete rest of deep sleep.
I can mistreat it easily, by eating or drinking sugary stuff or processed snacks, and neglecting my need for dietary fiber or physical activity. It still keeps working tirelessly. It will keep going until it’s forced to stop.
Not even the most faithful dog can match my heart for devoted service. If I could see it, and it could hear me, I’d fall to my knees and thank my heart, probably with tears of gratitude streaming down my face.
Meanwhile, I thank my heart by making time for nourishing meals, and by being physically active.
3. Lungs and diaphragm
They work non-stop to expel waste air and refuel my body with oxygen.
Even if I mistreated them, by inhaling polluted air, or smoking stuff, or accumulating way too much body fat, they would keep doing their best. Only if I persistently sabotaged them with unhelpful habits would they start struggling.
I thank them by consciously breathing deeply, several times a day, and by walking or cycling in nature, where the air is rich in negative ions.
4. Cranial nerves
These are the nerves that connect my eyes, ears, face, mouth, digestive system, voice, and internal organs to my brain. They allow me to hear, read, and sing Handel’s “Messiah,” to smell and taste delicious cuisine, to smile, to tell my loved ones how precious they are to me, to speak words of comfort and healing, to keep all my internal organs working day and night, and to use my breathing to calm myself when I’m upset.
Without them, I would face greater challenges than Helen Keller did. She was inspirational, but I’m grateful that I don’t have to try that hard.
I thank my cranial nerves by not subjecting them to overly loud sounds, by not looking directly at the sun, and by looking after my general health.
5. Immune system
This is my sophisticated defense system that recognizes and remembers every micro-enemy. It protects me against infections, cancers, foreign objects, toxins, and more.
There was once no effective treatment for the human immune-deficiency virus (HIV). In those days, people infected by HIV would die.
Without my immune system, microbes would invade me as easily as they invade a corpse, and cancers would flourish. I’m grateful for my immune system, despite the small risk of it getting confused and attacking me.
I thank my immune system by staying calm, optimistic, and motivated despite the setbacks of life. When I focus fully on doing the next little step that is important and good in my life, I can more easily stay calm, optimistic and motivated.
This is the world’s most sophisticated “detox” machine and factory. It works quietly, removing harmful molecules or transforming them into harmless ones, and making molecules that are crucial for my survival.
If I drink too much alcohol or take toxic drugs, my liver dies a bit. It keeps doing its best despite abuse, and even regenerates itself partly.
I thank it by limiting my alcohol intake to no more than a small glass of red wine in a day, and avoiding drugs that my doctor considers unnecessary.
These are my body’s balancing stations. They extract unhelpful or excess molecules from my blood and expel them in my urine. However, they retain useful molecules in my blood.
Without my kidneys, I would die. My blood pressure, blood acidity, salt levels, protein levels, and waste levels would be out of control. To survive, I would need a dialysis machine or a replacement kidney from a donor.
I thank my kidneys by trying to prevent diabetes. I do this by eating nourishing meals instead of grazing on sugary and processed snacks, and by exercising regularly.
I also make sure that any urinary infections are promptly treated, before the problem ascends to my kidneys.
They enable me to breathe, move, keep a good posture, speak, sing, and achieve many things that I take for granted.
If they grew too weak, I might start falling over and become confined to a wheelchair. Professor Stephen Hawking has a condition affecting the nerves that activate his muscles. He still makes spectacular contributions to the world. I hope to use my fully functional muscles to keep contributing to others.
I show my gratitude to my muscles by doing exercises that strengthen them, by stretching them regularly, and by using a work chair that is kind to my lower back and neck. When my muscles get sore, I stretch them and allow them time to rest and recover.
9. Circulatory system
These blood vessels carry good stuff to every part of my body. They carry unwanted stuff, like carbon dioxide, to where it can be passed out of my body.
If my blood vessels get blocked, parts of me will eventually die of starvation. Even my heart relies on these blood vessels to supply it with blood.
I thank my blood vessels by avoiding smoking, by eating nourishing meals instead of sugary or processed snacks, by avoiding sitting continuously for long periods, and by exercising regularly.
10. Endocrine glands
These provide me with tiny, but indispensable, amounts of hormones. The hormones fine-tune the way I function and make me a sexual being.
If my glands malfunctioned, my body would lapse into various illnesses.
I thank my endocrine glands by eating nourishing meals, calming myself when distressed, and remaining physically active.
11. Bones and joints
These allow me to stand, move, and fulfil my chosen purposes. Without them, I’d be an immobile blob of jelly. My brain, heart, and lungs would have no protection. I’d soon bleed to death from internal or external wounds, because I’d lack the clot-forming platelets that my bones manufacture.
My bones are also a factory for blood cells and some hormones. They help keep my mineral levels steady.
I thank my bones and joints by walking and doing strengthening exercises for my muscles, and eating nourishing meals. I keep my weight within healthy limits to spare the cartilage in my knee joints. I always use a seatbelt in a car, and minimize the need to speed.
12. Digestive system
This is the astonishing system which takes what I eat and drink and turns part of it into me. Its associated glands produce enzymes that break the food and drink into smaller molecules. These small molecules pass through the wall of my digestive system into my blood.
Whether I’m asleep or awake, my digestive system works to supply my body with nutrients, while moving waste along to where it can be expelled.
There’s a huge variety of ingredients I can ingest. Some of them are harmless, some are healthy, and some are downright harmful. My digestive system copes with them all as best it can. It also hosts trillions of useful microbes.
I thank my digestive system by avoiding polluted or toxic food and drink, by creating pleasant meal-times, and by eating healthy-sized portions of nourishing meals.
This is my amazing built-in, self-repairing raincoat and blanket, which responds to a lover’s touch as no other fabric can. It helps keep my body at just the right temperature, while keeping my insides in and the weather out.
I thank my skin by protecting it from over-exposure to the sun’s ultra-violet rays. I keep it clean, but without using excessively hot water, which would wash away its natural oils. If it gets broken, I disinfect the wound quickly and seal it with a layer of petroleum jelly.
14. Peripheral nerves
These are the command system for my muscles, the nerve supply for my skin, and my protective warning system. Without them, I could accidentally hold my hand in a fire and not know it. I could be bitten by insects, or devoured by rats, and still feel nothing.
Thanks to my peripheral nerves, my hand springs back automatically if I accidentally touch a candle flame or hot kettle. I have no choice in the matter. My nerves carry the pain to my spinal cord and then instantaneously carry the command back to my muscles: jump away from the source of pain!
Once, a famous hand surgeon asked medical students to volunteer for a peripheral nerve to be anesthetized. Within hours, all the volunteers found wounds and blisters on their skin. They didn’t know how the wounds happened, since they were temporarily deprived of pain in the affected skin.
I thank my peripheral nerves by eating nourishing meals instead of sugary or processed snacks, and by exercising regularly. I also avoid smoking and limit my alcohol intake to a small glass of red wine a day.
15. Reproductive system
This is the magical part of me that prompted and allowed me to seek a loving partner in life and make babies. I look at our grown children and marvel that half of each child originated in me.
Imagine if you had a machine that would follow all the instructions of a super-delicious but complicated and fiddly recipe. You know, the kind of recipe that involves pre-cooking some ingredients, then adding others at the right time, then adding a dash of this followed by straining it all and keeping it at just the right temperature for a precise number of minutes. Well, your reproductive system does far more complex things for you.
Your body self-regulates all the hormonal and other changes required for two half-cells to be formed, in a man and woman respectively. These can eventually come together and be nurtured until a baby is born—ready to be cherished, and apparently determined to keep its parents awake all night.
I thank my reproductive system by avoiding infections, loving my partner, and making the time and space to be playful together.
That just skims the surface of a few things we know about the human body. Each of the points could be expanded into several large libraries. The thirty trillion inter-related cells of the human body will keep scientific researchers busy for centuries to come.
You and I are awesome, in the best sense of the word.
Whenever you begin to criticize your body, pause to remember that your body is even more awesome than a galaxy. If you find the Milky Way awe-inspiring, then remember that your body is even more awe-inspiring.
The more grateful I become for my body, the greater grows my respect for others. I will bow to an Olympic athlete, but also to the most impoverished or disabled or aged person you can imagine. Because our bodies are awesome temples, regardless of our appearance.
Respect your body and tend it with love.
I’ve signed up for organ donation after I die. These organs that have served me so well can continue their amazing service, but to others who need them. On my deathbed, I’ll be willing a message to my beloved organs: “Thank you, my faithful friends. Thirty trillion times over, thank you.”