At War with Myself

“I hate my body.”

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Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

There is a refrain I say to myself, something I likely have never admitted to anyone: “I hate my body.”

I say this to myself quite often and without the gravity the word “hate” should imply because this simply is a fact of my existence.

A good friend texted recently, sharing very dark morning thoughts and ending with #upliftingthoughts. I wasn’t being flippant but empathetic when I replied: “Well … uh … yep … done that, do that … it is called existentialism.”

Discovering and working through existential philosophy and literature throughout my undergraduate years and into the first decade or so of my career as a teacher was incredibly important for me.

Liberating.

As I followed up with my friend, I explained that existentialism, in my opinion, gets a bad rap as a negative philosophy — confused with nihilism (in the same way “communism” is conflated with “totalitarianism” in the U.S.). My reading of existentialism, I explained, was that humans had to acknowledge that our passions are our sufferings in order to move past that fact of human existence so that we were free to live, even enjoy the fatalism of human existence (we live, we die, and everything else continues — or as Kurt Vonnegut put it, “So it goes”).

Human pain and suffering, and nearly daily angst experienced by being human (aware), are not things to be dreaded or to be overcome, avoided; those are fruitless folly.

I was drawn, in fact, to Albert Camus’s existentialism (mostly the literary strand). Not to be too simplistic, but Camus suggested humans must contemplate their ability to take their own lives, suicide, in order to reject that power, and live.

Camus also matter-of-factly said that Sisyphus’s rock was his Thing and we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

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I must confess that my daily refrain of “I hate my body” is grounded in a very simple fact: I cannot recall a single day of my life absent some sort of physical pain and discomfort.

In brief moments of painlessness, in fact, maybe brought on by medication for example, I am nearly unable to recognize painlessness as anything other than the absence of pain (the norm) and then am gripped by the realization that the pain will return — almost to the point of my feeling relief when the pain does return.

In my high school soccer-coach days, I had a ninth grader sit out of practice because he was in pain from practice “starting back all of a sudden” (he seemed to have no concept of off-season training); his older brother turned to him and said, “If I didn’t practice or play when I was in pain, I would never practice or play.”

I didn’t have to say anything, but nodded at the older brother.

It is no accident or surprise that I adopted as my lifelong athletic hobby recreational and competitive cycling, a sport that is grounded in pain and suffering.

To be a cyclist is to hurt; to be an elite cyclist is to hurt more than other cyclists.

I have more than once noted that a very hard cycling event was just pain.

And that is part of what my refrain to myself is all about; “I hate my body” is no complaint to myself or the Universe, but a statement of fact like “It’s just pain.”

I do imagine there are people without chronic pain, people who enjoy their physical selves, basking in pleasure as the default experience with their corporeal manifestation.

How I envy those people, maybe even loathe them.

I was quite old, nearly forty, before I discovered that I am a clinically anxious person, probably also on the autism spectrum; regardless, I am hyperaware of everything.

Every. Thing.

My senses are on high alert 24 hours a days, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

I may have normal experiences with pain (I doubt that) but I certainly am deeply and continually aware of those aches. Anxiety and pain are also symbiotic; regardless of which came first, they are cyclic and perpetuate each other relentlessly.

While some people dream of becoming wealthy or famous, I fantasize about relaxing and being painless in a way that doesn’t include anticipating the return of pain.

Pleasure as a default instead of the occasional “absence of pain.”

At 59, I am in a real dilemma because growing older is somewhat naturally a descent into chronic pain. Ironically, my cycling avocation has guaranteed as much since I spent many years cycling 8,000–10,000 miles a year, many of those miles exceeding efforts that I should not have been forcing my (hated) body to accomplish.

That is my war with myself. My body’s chronic pain in combat with my brain that will not pause, that wallows in endless “what if” thinking (resulting in my lifelong hypochondria as well).

When my friend and I were commiserating about dark thoughts, and I was being too academic and explaining existentialism, I also noted that existentialism allowed me to recognize that I am not drawn to some promise of a peaceful afterlife (the carrot of most organized religions) that can come if I deny the flesh during the one life before me.

Pain is exhausting and demoralizing, but it is the only thing I really know.

When I am prompted to say to myself “I hate my body,” I actually smile a little to myself, take a deep breath, do the best with whatever is before me, and just carry on.

It is my Thing, you must imagine me happy.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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