Listen To Article
Yuck factor warning: what follows will address bodily functions.
Our bodies, and the functions of our bodies, are often sources of shame and embarrassment. Ever notice how large the incontinence section is in drug stores? There are about 25 million people in the US with some level of incontinence. It’s almost never spoken of. Recent events in my life have left me wondering why.
After surgery earlier this summer I had to wear a urinary catheter for a couple of weeks. I changed between a leg bag during the day and a bag the size of a big purse at night. This strange appendage was far from comfortable and I felt very self-conscious, sort of like I was walking around with the pendulum from a grandfather clock sticking out of me. Or a rubber hose. Come to think of it, it was a rubber hose. I only left the house for medical appointments. I sulked in private. I am not sure if I am on solid theological ground here, but the whole ordeal left me feeling like urinary catheters must be standard issue in hell.
Yet as I write that, I feel bad, because my bag was temporary. I know there is a segment of the population that lives with catheters and colostomy bags. I’ve heard of people with disabilities who decorate their colostomy bags. They rightly refuse to be shamed.
Then there are the rest of us.
After my catheter was removed I was told to expect some degree of incontinence. They weren’t lying. I leak like an old church roof. It’s supposed to clear up, but that’s a matter of months, not days (and in some cases it doesn’t clear up).
It’s very hard to be patient and I’ve struggled with feeling pretty blue at times adjusting to my new normal. But when friends ask how I am doing post-surgery and I start to mention my incontinence, I have occasionally been cut off mid-sentence with an “I don’t want to hear about that.”
Why are we so uncomfortable with normal body functions? Isn’t this all part of being human? As I mentioned earlier, there are 25 million of us—that’s a whole lot of people keeping their pads and adult diapers a secret. Why the shame? (By the way, these conversations are typically with men. Women tend to say, “Welcome to my world.”)
You have to get over a lot in a hurry in a situation like mine. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’m not married to who have recently examined my nether regions. The first night in the hospital I said, “It’s turning into an episode of Naked and Afraid in here,” and that wound up being true. My modesty checked out when I checked in to the hospital.
Along those lines, when I was in pre-op I was told that passing gas would be an important milestone after surgery and an indication that I could go home. A nurse told me, “When you feel that happening, let it out regardless of who is in the room. Don’t hold back.” Sure enough, I was with not only my wife but a young nurse when I felt the urge. I let nature take its course (with all the gentleness of an asthmatic bull moose wheezing), turned eight shades of red, and profusely apologized.
“Oh no,” said the nurse, “I am delighted and excited to hear that. I’ve been waiting for it.” Since then, I’ve been wondering what our world might be like if strangers were happy every time nature blew its horn. My warped mind has been imagining a world where passing gas is a celebrated and feted accomplishment. I reel with vulgar (and comic) possibilities. I am so tempted to write several bad jokes here, but I’ll stop myself in the name of decency. Yet we all pass gas. It’s natural. We just don’t dare admit it.
The other side effect of my surgery is impotence. Just as surely as no one wants to read about passing gas, you surely did not open this blog today to read about impotence. Yet I was talking to a pastor the other day who had the same surgery as me a couple of years ago. He lifted his arms in triumph and said, “I got my sexual ability back nine months later.” I was uncomfortable. TMI. He was trying to encourage me but I didn’t think he should be telling me this.
I feel all these taboos intensely. You may notice I haven’t even used the word “prostate” in this piece yet. That’s because prostate cancer is on the shameful cancer list, right down there with bowel, rectal, and testicular cancer. In one sense I am grateful I had prostate cancer because it is treatable. On the other hand, it would be so much less embarrassing to have cancer above the waist.
Most of the people who read this blog are in some expression of the church, and many of you have been in the church your entire life. The level of discomfort with our bodies and their functions seems to ratchet up with church involvement. Why is this? Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made. Yet many of us have bought into the Greek notion that our bodies are the vile temporary homes of our wonderful immortal souls. Plato got it wrong when he called the body the prison house of the soul.
Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. Bodies are not bad. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation. They come in all sizes and shapes. They have reproductive organs and women can even grow tiny new humans in them. Our bodies miraculously turn food into energy and in the process produce both liquid and solid waste.
We don’t need to be ashamed. Our bodies are gifts to us. Amazing gifts. Sometimes things don’t work right, but even when our bodies struggle they are still our bodies.
I’m trying not to be ashamed of mine. How about you?