Monday, February 25, 2008

Without desire the world is beautiful

At the end of August 2002, This American Life did an episode about the effects of testosterone on the human body. In the first act, a man discusses how a medical condition that made his body stop producing testosterone made him see beauty in every single thing in the world.*

Everything that I identify as being me--my ambition, my interest in things, my sense of humor, the inflection in my voice--the quality of my speech even changed in the time that I was without a lot of the hormone. So, yes, the introduction of testosterone returned everything.

There were things that I find offensive about my own personality that were disconnected then, and it was nice to be without them: envy; the desire to judge itself. I approached people with a humility that I had never displayed before.

I grew up in a culture, like all of us, that divides the soul from the body and [says] that that is your singleness; that is your uniqueness; and nothing can touch that. And then I go through this experience where I have small amounts of a bodily chemical removed and then reintroduced, and it changes everything I know as my self; and it violates the sanctity of that understanding--that understanding that who you are exists independent of any other forces in the universe. And that's humbling. And it's terrifying.

When you have no testosterone, you have no desire, and when you have no desire, you don't have any content in your mind. You don't think about anything. ... I was, when I was awake, literally sitting in bed and staring at the wall with neither interest nor disinterest for three, four hours at a time. If you'd had a camera in the room, you would have thought I was comatose. I would go out, I would buy some groceries early in the morning and that would be it. My day had no content. I had no interest in even watching tv much less reading the newspaper or a book. Um, food: I didn't want my food to taste good or interesting, and when you're blessed with that lack of desire, you can eat a loaf of Wonder Bread with mayonnaise, and that will be your day. I only saw my girlfriend on weekends since she was living in New York, and I was living in Philly, so I could get away with it five days at a time. Needless to say, there was absolutely no desire.

People who are deprived of testosterone don't become Spock-like and incredibly rational. They become nonsensical because they're unable to distinguish between what is and isn't interesting and what's worth noting and what isn't.

It's very quiet at 530, 6 in the morning, and I would see a brick in a wall and I would think, "Brick in a wall," and I would see a pigeon, and I would think, "Pigeon." It's the most literal possible understanding of the world.

... Everything I saw I thought, "That is beautiful," which is odd-sounding, I know, because that sounds like the judgment of a person with passion, but it was the exact opposite. It was said--it was thought--and sometimes even said with complete dispassion--with objectivity. And you see, I was looking at absolutely everything--the most mundane sight in the world: a weed the sidewalk, and thinking, "Oh, that's beautiful." The surgery scars on peoples' knees? The bolts in the hubcaps of cars? all of it. It just seemed to have purpose, and I was like "Ah, that's beautiful."

When I think about that...the issue of God comes into the equation for me. In a way, being without testosterone brought me closer to God but not in the afternoon-talk-show sense of being, I don't know, more humane but actually thinking like God. Of course, I don't mean, thinking as God, but I mean thinking like God in an aping, superficial kind of way. He sees things as they really are. He sees you as you really are. I had this omniscient sense, when I was without testosterone, that I was seeing through the skin of things; that I was seeing things as they really were and that the objective conclusion--not the judgmental one but the objective conclusion--was, they are beautiful.

Everything is beautiful, from the bugs, to the cracks in the sidewalk, to the faces of other people, and it was automatic. Perhaps to see things objectively is to see them, all of them, as beautiful, [laughs] but in the most--you have to understand that the thought was expressed in the most flatline, boring way possible, "Oh yeah, that's beautiful, 's beautiful."

You would think that this would be a terrible thing, a terrible state to be in and for most people it is, but it was weirdly pleasant. There is a certain appeal, an impossible appeal, to that Rip Van Winkle existence of being without testosterone. You just have to remember that it doesn't matter if you have nothing if you want nothing. Very tricky to get inside that mindset, in some ways it's difficult for me to even remember it now, but it had its allure.

...all that wanting.

I love that the absence of desire yielded a zen-like understanding that the world is beautiful for this man. With judgment, things just were, and when they just were, they were beautiful.

That bit about seeing like God must is wonderful too. In God's eyes, as we imagine them, he is perfect and creates everything, so it is perfect too. He doesn't doubt his perfection like we do and so, must see the beauty in everything.

Hmmm, but perfection is problematic here. It's not perfection or imperfection that makes something beautiful in this context. It's the fact of its existence without judgment that does. There is so much in this.

*Because this particular program ran on NPR stations as a rerun this past weekend it is available to be heard for free from This American Life's website this week.

For maximum coherence I've edited out the words of Producer Alex Blumberg who conceived the idea for the episode, discovered this man's story in GQ magazine, and conducted the interview from which this passage originated. For the same reason, I've also removed a few of the subject's words as he responds to Alex's questions, as well as a transition spoken by Ira Glass between the prologue and first act of the episode.

I cannot thank Ira and the producers and funders of this program enough for its existence. It has shaped and supported my view of the world and the work I'd like to do here so thoroughly.

img credit: modified version of testosterone image file on wikipedia commons


Servidores said...
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Anonymous said...

"We live in a world of suffering which evil is rampant, a world whose events do not confirm our Being, a world that has to be resisted. It is in this situation that the aesthetic moment offers hope, that we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course f a single life would lead us to believe...The energy of one's perception becomes inseparable from the energy of creation."

- John Berger, "The White Bird"

Anonymous said...

"A flower within a flower whose history

(within the mind) crouching

among the ferny rocks, laughs at the names

by which they think to trap it. Escapes!

Never by running but by lying still."

-William Carlos Williams, Paterson