Passages from Sherwin Nuland's Writings

Passages from Sherwin Nuland's Writings

The Value of Beauty

In The Wisdom of the Body, Nuland writes about the value of beauty that can be found in our own biological makeup as it can be in a poem.

"Our lives march to the molecular beat of our tissues. Our spirits sing to the music of our biology.

"Perhaps the greatest feat of the humanizing process is the recognition of beauty, both the beauty that we find around us and the beauty we can create. Beauty in and of itself would seem to be of no direct consequence to the DNA's survival needs (nature has provided other ways of attracting members of the opposite sex), and that alone makes its recognition one of the supreme accomplishments of the human mind: Beauty of image, of sound, and of thought give us the sense of enrichment, even of spirituality, that goes well beyond our constant seeking of mere survival and the most elementary forms of gratification and pleasure. The human spirit and its perpetual search for beauty are the defining characteristics of our humanity at its best.

"Think of poetry. Its most fundamental characteristic is in the line, however constructed; the line is the tissue of poetry. Like a tissue, it exhibits repetition and variation. Although any of its words, like any cell, is insignificant when taken by itself, its presence in the line is essential to the cadence and the meaning of the whole; it therefore demands attention in its own right.

"Every word is the precise word—every pause is the precise pause, whether indicated by the voice or in the punctuation. Each depends for its significance on the entire poem, and at the same time each gives its own significance to the entire poem. The whole gives meaning to each constituent part and to the specific location of that part within it. Is this not true of every part of the body, perhaps even of every cell? It is precisely the right kind of cell, but standing alone by itself without context, its work has no meaning. The various elements of a poem combined—are organized, are integrated, are unified—into the complex organism we behold. The poetic organism lives because each of its words and pauses and punctuations live. True of a poem, true of a man. We create a poem in our own image."

Eros vs. Thanatos

In The Wisdom of the Body, Nuland describes the ancient Greek philosophy of love and death acting as counterpoints to one another.

"Responding to sensory input from the body and its surroundings, delivered over incoming fibers and via chemical messengers, the human brain has, I believe, engaged itself in the instinctual battle between stability and chaos, echoing up from its deepest cellular self. That battle is expressed in the psychological conflict between Eros and Thanatos—the forces of love (and therefore life) against the forces of death instinct. Because the two are irreconcilable, the central nervous system of man has had, since the time it originally came into existence with the birth of the first Homo sapiens, to conjure with itself—to try various combinations of circuitry and chemistry, and to turn to its excess reserve capacity in exploratory ways—until it became what it is today, a vast machine works of intellect, spirituality, and even neurosis.

"It might be pointed out, and properly so, that all of the foregoing presupposes a state of constant improvement, and therefore presents Pollyanna's view of the mind and its potentialities. But my definition of the human spirit is not restricted to the sublime qualities developed within our species. It includes, as well, those other characteristics of which we are far less proud, the baser qualities in all that is subsumed under the rubric of humanness. If there is an antonym for everything we customarily associate with spiritual, it must surely be mean-spirited. The same adaptive use of circuitry and molecular interactions that allows humankind to perform the mental gymnastics leading to our finest accomplishments is also in thrall to our baser instincts. Like all adaptations, some are maladaptive. The maladaptations, the conflict between order and chaos, as well as the imperatives of living in societies in which individualistic drives must be restrained in the interest of community—these are the stuff of antisocial behavior and neurosis. This, too, is part of humanity.

"The very instability of the multitudinous mechanisms that maintain our homeostasis is reflected in the instability and ambivalence with which we view our fellows and the universe, but especially ourselves. Echoing his inner physiology, man is engaged in a constant struggle to maintain the equilibrium that permits daily living. The conflict between constancy and consistency on the one hand and chaos and destruction on the other is mirrored in the mind's equally persistent struggle between the goodness that is in us and the dark drives of anarchic catastrophe. That luminous quality of reason that we value so highly is precariously perched on the unsettled knife edge between good and evil. The human mind being some 200 million years younger than the mammalian body to which it can trace its origin, the quality we might call mental homeostasis is not yet as effective as its physical counterpart. We function not only physically but mentally too, in a crucible of conflicting forces; we continue in stable emotional life only because a degree of balance is achieved by the internalized morality that is sustained by our individual and societal equivalents of enzymes and other regulatory mechanisms. Sometimes we lose the uneasy equilibrium we have attained with so much effort. The result is mental illness, injustice, and the maleficence to which we give daily witness.

"My rabbinic teachers first made me aware of the Talmudic teaching that man lives in eternal conflict between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, his good and evil inclination. Civilization began and persists because the maintenance of what might be called social homeostasis, and therefore a civilized society, demands that the forces of equilibrium—the forces of the good—win out. But the history of the twentieth century and the events of which we read in our daily newspapers tell us that this is an ideal too often unattained. Society's struggle, like ours, never ends."

Biological Underpinnings of Spirituality

In The Wisdom of the Body, Nuland writes that our physical potentialities form the underpinnings of spirituality and faith.

The Betrayal of the Body

In The Wisdom of the Body, Nuland tells about a young woman who was experiencing premature menopause due to evolutionary systems.

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was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, where he also taught bioethics and medical history. His books include How We Die, Lost in America, Maimonides, and How We Live: The Wisdom of the Body.

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