About 50 years ago someone taught me that green plants need only sunlight, water, and air to survive and grow. This seemed to me a miracle, and so it was portrayed—that is, a miracle as compared with animals and people, who need so much more in the way of nutrients. Plants make their own glucose out of virtually nothing and grow just fine. We humans need a balanced diet—pizza, beer, etc.—not to mention a daily multi-vitamin if we really want to play it safe.
I have since realized that we’re still pretty much talking about a miracle.
I once read a book by Sherwin Nuland, called The Wisdom of the Body (reissued as How We Live), in which he makes the workings of our bodily selves comprehensible to those of us who happen not to be doctors. At every level, the machinery he describes is an astonishment—one of those wonders we live with, or because of, or by the grace of, while roaming about with our minds on other things. The bigger wonder—to which he attends as well—is how, inhabiting this machinery, or perhaps as a manifestation of this machinery—here we are.
So try doing this, if only to spend a moment remembering to be amazed:
Take someone you love—your child, a spouse or lover, a friend in an indulgent mood—and place the flat of one hand on their chest and the other on their back. Spread your fingers and press gently. Feel the breath go in and out of them, the heart beating. In there, between the palms of your hands, the machinery of this person you love hums and gurgles. That warmth you feel? In every cell of theirs, the commonplace stuff they consume—say, pizza and beer—is fueling their very life. Because the machinery’s working—and only because it’s working—you have them. This unique, inexplicable, endlessly engaging person; all that identity, all that consciousness, all that love. Hum. Gurgle.
What brought this to mind wasn’t Nuland’s book—which I recommend, by the way—but rather a paragraph I came across last night in Raymond Tallis’s Hunger. He was discussing the fact that animals don’t seem to find the same pleasure in eating that we do. Here’s some great stuff, but it’s the last dozen or so words in particular that made me stop and look up from the page:
Observation of animal feeding makes it reasonable to suspect that human beings are the only animals who truly relish their food, although non-human animals may feel the brief pleasure that comes from the relief of hunger. Worms seem unlikely to lick their stomata in anticipation of another helping of leaf mold. Relish also seems absent in the higher reaches of the animal kingdom. The cow consuming a day-long single-course meal of grass; the seagull swooping, snatching at fragments of bread, while fighting off the competition; the dog bolting pet food; the wolf wolfing down carrion—they all seem bent less on pleasure than on getting as much food inside themselves before it runs out, or is stolen. They are not Epicureans, and seem unlikely to sign up to a Slow Food Movement. They give little indication that they savor what is in their mouths before it disappears into the dark interior of their bodies and is transformed into energy, order, tissues.
What I thought was: It is, likewise, transformed into us. Here’s a genuine reason for relishing our dinner!
I used the word fueling a minute ago, as if the food you consumed were like coal shoveled into a furnace. But in your loved one’s case the furnace is made from the coal . . . it’s made from the stuff that he or she consumes . . . the pizza and beer, the inhaled atmosphere. And of course we’re staring at something that’s far more than a furnace. It’s something more than the sum of the machinery, but that in crucial ways is the machinery. Somehow, the truly miraculous happens in all of us—the pizza and beer become the glint of consciousness in our eyes. The food gets converted into a life, and, because of the incomprehensible conversion of matter into spirit, into a person.
Perhaps, it occurs to me, I should have asked you to read this while you’re eating.
The photo of Raymond Tallis is from The Sunday Times.