In a most wise and moving opinion piece in the New York Times this past week (These Wretched Vessels, 12.24.12), columnist Frank Bruni urges us reexamine the way we tend to “foolishly define ourselves in terms of what’s measurable from the outside, instead of what glimmers within.”
The following is a selection from his piece, which was inspired by his viewing of the movie “The Sessions.”
It sometimes seems to me that one-third of the conversations I have with the people around me — most of us privileged and to varying degrees pampered — concern physical plaints: the love handles that won’t be whittled, the hairline in retreat, the knees crying foul over decades of running, the crow’s-feet heralding the end of our salad days and the beginning of — what? Our wilting? If we don’t feel bad about our necks, we feel bad about plenty else.
And even when I was younger, I heard or participated in no shortage of similar talks. From the time we become fully aware of our bodies, so many of us are at ceaseless war with them. We obsess over their imperfections. We will them into different contours and hues. And we line the coffers of beauty purveyors, as if attaining some carnal ideal could confer contentment.
I think about this whenever I reflect on one of my favorite movies from 2012. “The Sessions” has as much to say about the human experience as grander, more lavishly praised and more widely discussed productions like “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” And part of what it says is that our bodies are not ourselves. That we can be dealt a set of imperfections — of crushingly severe limitations, in fact — and nonetheless transcend them, with some help and some luck and, above all, some grit. That we can look as far beyond the flesh that we’ve inherited as we resolve to, and that fulfillment is a mind-set, at least in many cases and to some extent.
“The Sessions” tells the real-life story of Mark O’Brien, a writer who was afflicted with polio in his childhood and, as a result, was mostly paralyzed from the neck down. He was tiny, too: just 4-foot-7 as a fully grown man, and about 60 pounds. He spent his nights in an iron lung, which helped him breathe. When he ventured out during the day, he did so either in a specialized wheelchair or on a kind of gurney. There were indeed places he couldn’t go and things he couldn’t do.
But at some point he decided that one thing he would do was have sex. He advertised for a girlfriend on his Web page, wryly noting, “There will be no walks on the beach.” Ultimately, he visited a sex surrogate. “The Sessions” focuses on that interlude and relationship, rendered so unblinkingly that the movie is all too easy to see only as a parable of sexual awakening and an account of an unconventional liaison.
What “The Sessions” illuminates is bigger than that. It shows an individual insisting on experiences and pleasures outside the limits of what, because of his physical form, he’s supposed to envision for himself and others envision for him. For example, O’Brien, who died in 1999 at the age of 49, couldn’t type or write longhand, but through dictation and the movement of a stick with his mouth he put word to paper and fashioned a career as a journalist and poet. And, if the movie is credible, he found joy.
There are countless ways for our bodies to betray us and, in the more charmed precincts of the world, a woeful lack of perspective in assessing which of those ways are consequential and which merely warrant minor annoyance, if that. There’s also a widespread failure to grasp the happiness-dooming futility of endless yearnings for transformations beyond what diet and exercise are rightly prescribed for and can reasonably accomplish. Beyond what’s healthy and sensible and proportional.
We’re so much more than these wretched vessels that we sprint or swagger or lurch or limp around in, some of them sturdy, some of them not, some of them objects of ardor, some of them magnets for pity. We should make peace with them and remain conscious of that, especially at this particular hinge of the calendar, when we compose a litany of promises about the better selves ahead, foolishly defining those selves in terms of what’s measurable from the outside, instead of what glimmers within.