I am reminded of the classic sci-fi novel Mindswap by Robert Sheckley where the main character, Marvin Flynn mind travels to alien worlds and ends up in a body of a giant beetle like creature who has a snout ring with a bomb in it. “On Celsus V, the giving and receiving of gifts is a cultural imperative.” Marvin our hero can not refuse the gift, which explains why the former owner of the body elected to mindswap. Marvin Flynn’s adventures in this hilarious novel illustrate life without control. We like to believe our lives are controlable, and that we are in the driver’s seat of our bodies, looking out the windows of our eyes, driving through life. What throws us is when we crash into a situation where we have no control.
From an early age we learn to live with a lack of control. At first we just cry until we get what we want. Eventually we develop drives, skills, ambitions and we get pretty good at getting what we want. However, life sometimes parks us between a rock and a hard place and we can’t do anything about it. The most intense and intimate of these places of no control is failing health. My heart arrhythmia reminds me of that ticking snout ring. For the most part we go about our lives ignoring the obviousness of death. It’s not until some vital component in our body starts telling us knock-knock jokes that we have to whisper, “Who’s there?” to Mr. Death.
The weird thing about health is how easy it lets you forget about disease. My heart can act nuts for several days taking me on a roller coaster ride of thrills, and then settle down for a day and I can forget all the scary lessons almost immediately. Feeling good makes the future seem bright, even if it’s just for a moment. When Mr. Death starts thumping one of your vital organs you have these amazing revelations. For instance, “Oh, that’s why we’re supposed to exercise and eat healthy,” comes to you in a Zen like clap of enlightenment. Your mind swears you’ll never eat another french fry again. But as soon as the thumping stops for a moment and you have a brief instance of feeling good, it’s “Hey, guys, let’s go to McDonald’s.”
Who is in control here? I’d like to think I was, but I’m learning what a silly notion that is. If I was in control I should have become a health fanatic the first time I over ate and puked up as a kid. Or at least the first time I drank too much and puked up. Or, one of the other zillion times I got sick or hurt. But I didn’t. When my heart dances like I’m jogging when I’m reclining in my La-Z-Boy I know I should have lost that extra fifty pounds decades ago, but that doesn’t put me in control. I can pop a beta-blocker my doctor gave me and get my heart to beat to the time I want, but is that being in control? I can pretend I’m healthy, but inside my heart is like a cartoon character, boinking around. I know it wants to get out of its chemical straight-jacket so it can sing and dance again to its own tune.
What I learned from conversing with my body parts is there’s a vast divide between body and mind, and the trouble is, the body is in control, not me. In fact, you end up pleading and begging with your organs to behave by swearing you’ll do anything they want if they’ll just be nice for a little while longer. This does open up a whole can of philosophical worms. In this bag of flesh there are countless components with their own drives and desires, so which one is the one who wants to eat Ben & Jerry’s every night with Oreos? Egotistically, I’d like to say it’s me, the mind, that makes all the choices, but I know there is some chemical process that I can’t name working with cells I can’t identify that talk to other cells and organs that shanghai me, the mind, to buy and eat the B&J.
I do have some control. The more I know how the body works the more I can consciously try to influence it. I’ve read studies that say only 1 person in 20 can lose weight and keep it off. Does that mean five percent of the population has will power or that five percent have a body with a variable set point for weight? I know I can make my heart happier if I lose weight, eat right and exercise every day, but do I have the control to do that? I consider myself trying to do all that for thirty years and I’m still fifty pounds overweight. Who is in control here?