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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?

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the Executive Vice President of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

15 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “ ‘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? “

    Very compelling post. But I guess it’s true. Even the N.T. “authors (and editors)” left out those parts where Jesus and The Apostles “sought a quite place” for a purpose other than prayer …

    The blame probably goes to Deuteronomy 23 where a pretty detailed defecation description is provided. The passage ends “ so that He may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.” That’s probably where the “humans not wanting to hear about it” part comes from.

    Nevertheless, … asking God’s Favor upon you for a rapid recovery. God Bless You.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    Thank you for this article. This topic is so rich, and connected to discussions of how so many of our taboo words and common epithets show our disgust rather than honor for digestive and reproductive body parts and processes.

    Our orifices, and their fluid emissions and follicular sheddings, are the basic mementos that our bodies are never impervious. We’re unable to armor ourselves from being “soft targets” when it comes to flux, illness, injury, and death. It comforts me to know that Jesus, was incontinent during his infancy and also likely during his beatings and execution by suffocation. A pastor once told me that it is impossible that Jesus’s adult dead body might have had urine or excrement on his legs “because God would never lose control like that.” I think often about what belief about God, or what belief about human nature, would undergird that phrase “would never.” Could a God who would never lose bladder or bowel control be willing to become fully human? The authentic comfort in our faith might be less about God’s total continuous control, and more about God’s total with-us-ness.

  • Helen P says:

    Thank you for this Jeff.
    As a 45 plus year home for Crohn’s ileitis, I so relate to some of these comments and laughed aloud with your description of the nurse’s reaction to your passing of gas.
    I well remember having the doctor say post-surgery that I could have soft food once he heard “good bowel sounds” following my first of two bowel re-sections.
    There is a section in Paul Brand’s book, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, when he and co-author Philip Yancey equate our body parts to the body of Christ and speak in one section about the kidneys/intestines as the body’s janitors and asks where would we be without them? It gave me a much greater respect for the “unmentionable” body parts and functions.
    I’m so glad you are healing well.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    I loved this post! Thank you for addressing what so many people must endure, so often in silence. May we learn compassion in all circumstances, offering the gift of practical dignity when our bodies must suffer stress, pain and infirmities. Bless you for your vulnerability.

  • Four years ago I had the same surgery. It is amazing how many people are uncomfortable talking about it. You are correct; there is nothing to be ashamed of. We got caught up in the side effects of a fallen world.

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    I’m glad you talked about it for all of us who would lack the guts to do so.

  • David E Timmer says:

    Great post, Jeff. The link below is to an interesting NYTimes article about the possible evolutionary roots of disgust. Theology and ethics can benefit from dialogue with biology, psychology, and cultural anthropology on this issue. Understanding the sources of our disgust with bodily functions might help us deal with the dysfunctional aspects of that disgust.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/24/science/disgusts-evolutionary-role-is-irresistible-to-researchers.html

  • Rosalyn De Koster says:

    Jeff, thank you for your post. This has me wondering if there is a sense of shame around “below the waist” cancers for females. It doesn’t seem like that is the case, but perhaps that’s only my thoughts. Even colon cancer doesn’t seem so bad when associated with a female. Why is that?
    At the same time, it does seem that discussing the less than flattering parts of childbirth, which cover impotence, among other things, is taboo. I’m curious what other people make of that and why, as you say, is it so shame-filled? It is part of our gloriously created bodies.

  • James Schaap says:

    My wife and I are both 71, old enough to smile understandingly and laugh uproariously. Thanks for saying what should not be said. It was a blessing.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Like Jim and his wife, I too smiled understandingly and laughed uproariously. But I want to thank you for saying what should be said.

  • This summer I spent a lot of time around our 12 and 14 year old grandchildren and friends. I heard some very interesting, not vulgar or disgusting, conversations. One 12 year old was seriously talking about how her body reacted to different foods, and how much better she felt when avoiding them. They all seemed much more comfortable with normal bodily functions than my generation. It seemed quite healthy.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    One of the areas I regulate is sewage treatment, so I get the pleasure of speaking about bodily functions daily as i talk plainly with little old ladies, businessmen, farmers, newlyweds, and more. Most don’t bat an eye as long as I am very matter-of-fact about it.

    I do think there is a sense in which we properly shield others from certain exposures. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it is meant to share. We certainly ought not advertise or expose our sexual interaction with our spouses, and that is as natural as it gets.

    I don’t agree with the leap that the author seems to make from a desire for privacy to a conclusion that people are ashamed of their bodies or think bodies are bad. I don’t think bodies are bad, nor am i ashamed of my body. But i do value my privacy. Is that wrong?

    Jeff, I do not envy your ordeal. I pray that God will grant you healing.

  • Henry Ottens says:

    “…and the parts we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.” Paul had his priorities right.
    Thanks, Jeff, for telling your story “clothed” in your inimitable sense of humor.

  • Ginny Kuilema says:

    Jeff – I’m sorry you have this present challenge. Will pray for complete recovery. Bodily functions keep us alive.

  • Michael A Weber says:

    To take it one step further, I would assert that elimination partakes of the creation benediction, “It is good.” A good bowel moment is pleasurable and releases endorphins into our system. Elimination is not a “necessary evil” but a part of the goodness of creation. Constipation is hell and taking a good dump often feels like heaven, even if we are too embarrassed to admit it.

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