Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I am not my body

I am not my body. But as the media bombards us with images of perfect bodies we can never have, we become convinced we are our bodies. Passing through puberty, into adulthood and now middle age, I'm sure I have wasted an inordinate amount of time lamenting the size of my hips, the gray in my hair and the lines on my face. Finally, as I approach my 50s, I find my parents were right all along: I am not my body.

I was born in 1959, near the end of the baby boomers. Unfortunately, I arrived without all my body parts fully intact. My left arm is a short stub with a small hand and three fingers, reminiscent of a thalidomide defect. To my good fortune, I picked superb parents who insisted I was not my body. They were fighters who struck "I can't" from my vocabulary and replaced it with "I will find a way." They believed that the development of the mind, heart and soul determines who you are.

My body was not to be used as an excuse. Instead, it became a catalyst.

My body endured surgery, physical therapy, swimming and yoga. But it was not the focus of my life. I was taught to respect my body and to remember that it was only a vehicle that carried the most important things: my brain and soul.

Furthermore, I was taught that bodies come in all shapes, colors and sizes and that everyone struggles in some way with the inadequacies of their bodies. Infomercials have convinced me this must be true (although through puberty I found it difficult to believe the girls in the cheerleading squad had any self-doubts).

I suppose I've always known that my birth "defect" shaped my personality and personal philosophy. In my alternately formed body, I learned patience, determination, frustration and success.

This body can't play the piano or rock climb, but it taught the neighborhood kids to eat with their feet, a skill I learned as a child in the hospital. This body learned to tie my shoes, cross the stage to pick up my college diploma, backpack through Europe and change my children's diapers when they were babies.

People think I am my body, and some try to treat me with prejudice or pity. Some are just curious. It took a couple of decades, but I learned to ignore the stares and smile back. This body has taught me to appreciate my fellow humans -- even the thin, beautiful and able-bodied.

This I believe: I am not my body. I am my words, my ideas and my actions. I am filled with love, humor, ambition and intelligence. I am a creative spirit, a fellow human walking the planet, who, just like you, is so much more than my body.

By USA WEEKEND reader Lisa M. Sandin for NPR's This I Believe