A Sickness

“That’s ******* gross.” I looked at the older man in the grey Mercedes wearing a button down striped dress shirt open at the collar staring back at me with a grimace and smiled. He repeated, louder, “That’s ******* gross,” and drove off.

The lexical data base for English at Princeton University shows gross’s semantic relations as crude, earthy, gross, vulgar (conspicuously and tastelessly indecent), but also as megascopic, gross (visible to the naked eye (especially of rocks and anatomical features)), and also, interestingly enough, gross, porcine (repellently fat).

I thought about what constituted the state of grossness. Obviously, peoples’ perceptions of what is gross vary to some degree. I would also hazard that those perceptions are learned and cultural specific, what we might find repellant other cultures possibly find acceptable. Here was a man, because he was protected by his Mercedes, able to opine on my being and escape due to the power of his internal combustion engine.

Owning an automobile costing anywhere from $34,000 to $110,500 depending on the model in a city where the poverty rate is 10.5 percent and the poverty threshold for a family of three is $18,310 of income a year and the average yearly rental rate per room is $20,400. Yes, that is per room. To my way of thinking, that seems gross. Of course, I don’t fault the man behind the wheel of the Mercedes . . . entirely. One must ask questions, however. Is he aware of his privilege, does he give back to help correct the social wrongs, does his job contribute to the well-being of society or does it profit from the exploitation and creation of problems. These are questions which, of course, have no ready answer but which I feel bear asking considering the ease with which he passes judgement.

But what was it that elicited such a visceral response from this man? Readers who are familiar with me will have likely guessed the answer by now. Yes, I was walking down the street, naked, except for my shoes, hat, and backpack. I find it extraordinary that he, or anyone, can have such a strong reaction to the sight of a naked body. What is it about the exposed human body which elicits not only a negative response in some people, but one which is almost always rabid.

I am reminded of a short story from Howard Fast’s book, Time and the Riddle: 31 Zen Stories entitled “The Sight of Eden” in which seven astronauts discover an earth-like planet on the far side of the universe which is beautiful beyond description. They find planet to be like the garden of their dreams, filled with fragrance, music, and color to delight their every moment. After three days they finally meet a man in a robe able to read their minds named Smith. Smith tells them that this particular planet is a park for the children in this part of the galaxy. Smith’s people have been watching the Earth’s inhabitants for a long time and he has been sent to talk with them about their sickness. The seven Earth astronauts argue with Smith and defend their state of civilization; they are scientists, doctors, teachers. Smith opens his robe, lets it slip off, exposing his naked body to them. They turn their heads in shock and shame. “‘In all the universe,’ Smith said, ‘there is only one race of man that holds its bodies in shame and contempt. All others walk naked in pride and unashamed. Only Earth has made the image of man into a curse and a shame. What else must I say?’”

Indeed, what else must I say?
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51-55, M
Jul 26, 2010