Embodiment, disability and growing old

By Wendy Stainton Rogers, December, 2018

John Cromby, in his book Feeling Bodies: Embodying Psychology makes a strong argument for developing an embodied psychology – ‘one that takes seriously the observation that absolutely all experience depends upon our living bodies for its very character, as well as its mere possibility’ (Cromby, 2015: 7).

As someone who has a severely damaged and dysfunctional body I feel strongly that we critical health psychologists need to take a lot more notice of people’s lived experience of their bodies. At times, I think, we get so deeply embroiled in fascinating analyses of, for example, the misuse of power, and the need for social justice (to mention just two of our preoccupations) we fail to take account of the fundamental materiality of being human.  But it isn’t that simple, as I explain here.

My concern with bodily materiality is because much of my damage has to do with my gut – and guts are strange. I cannot eat any longer, yet I have no bodily experience of hunger because I am fed artificially by pump. But I can still long to eat, for all the reasons to do with what food means to us, and its role in our social and emotional lives. Also, guts are very visceral, especially when they are unhappy. And mine is, because it is always empty but still active. My empty, active gut is relentless, leaving me pretty uncomfortable most of the time and often in pain. I tried all the pain-killers and nausea-blockers, but they made me groggy and unable to think clearly. Gradually I found that I could control all these nasty sensations by occupying my mind, particularly, in my case, by writing.

So there is another layer of my embodiment, to do with my human agency, something beyond my materiality. After a fairly lengthy period of adjustment, I developed the capacity to refuse to be defined (by myself and others) as pathetic – somebody who deserves pity. Knowing that I had ways to resist my bodily discomfort allowed me to regain the identity (of a competent, socially engaged, well-informed and kind person) that I had lost.

In the process I have developed real insight into why people with disabilities (or simply when they grow old) resist so powerfully being treated as ‘brave’ or ‘feisty’ or even ‘superhuman’. Like them, I simply want to go on being me. I was ‘good enough’ before all this happened and do not need some special treatment now, just because my embodiment has changed – just the usual sorts of kindness, courtesy and respect any human being deserves.

Human embodiment is more than material,

it is about the human spirit.

In the way I manage my damaged body I was particularly inspired by Sven Brinkman’s recent book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. Brinkman is a respected scholar and is best known for his research and theorisation in the philosophical, moral, and methodological issues in psychology. Yet this book is a new venture for him. Based on old-style stoicism, it offers advice on how to regain your human agency in a neoliberal world of relentless hyper-capitalist governmental forces.

He suggests a number of stoic strategies that include accepting your limitations and the negatives in your life (yes – really!); learning to manage your feelings; no longer allowing yourself to be conned into unreal aspirations; valuing your cultural resources, constancy, tradition and lessons from the past. Not a popular set of messages these days, but it confirmed my belief in the crucial importance of what makes us human – not our bodies but our conscience and self-determination; our capacity for hope and our pragmatic ability to flourish. Human embodiment is more than material, it is about the human spirit.

References

Brinkmann, S. (2017) Stand Firm: resisting the Self-Improvement Craze (trans T. McTurk). Polity Press: Cambridge.

Cromby, J. (2015) Feeling Bodies: Embodying Psychology. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Wendy Stainton Rogers was one of the founding members of ISCHP and its chair for several years. After retiring from the Open University in September 2011, within a month she had to have surgery which went badly wrong. A few more medical catastrophes since then have left her ‘bodily challenged’, but in the last few years she has been able to return to academic work and other ways of enjoying life. She is a Professor Emerita (at the OU) and is currently completing a book: The Psychology of Human Being, for Routledge. 

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