This morning, I listened to a recording of an NPR interview of the author of I Contain Multitudes, a book that came out recently and that I will be putting at the top of my Christmas List. The book, as I understand it, is part science and part philosophical inquiry, focusing on the smallest of the world’s creatures: microbes.
Every person on earth has trillions of bacteria living on them and within them. Your nose and belly button each have their own unique bacterial colonies, while pale in comparison to the veritable universe inhabiting your gut. We each carry pounds of bacteria around in our bodies, who outnumber our own body cells by several magnitudes of ten. As a life form, I am no more a single “me” than Earth is a single “me.” As the book title says, we each contain multitudes. These bacteria are critical for digestion, immune health, and may even regulate our moods and fluctuations in weight. Little do we know, trillions of creatures inside of us are making our own lives possible.
This interview struck me, not only for its biological wonder, but also as yet another example of the mysterious interdependence of the universe and the planet. It made me balk in wonder at the sheer complexity of each living organism, and how much each of us is influenced by other forms of life. We learn about symbiosis in biology class, but why don’t we learn that we ourselves are symbiotic creatures, providing a home to trillions of bacteria who in turn keep us healthy and safe?
It also made me realize a completely new dimension of the sacredness of the human body. It is so easy to get caught up in the flaws of our physical beings, in a culture that views the body as an object of physical prowess and beauty. We are taught to see our bodies mere proof of our self-control, habits, and dedication to improvement, in the form of diet and exercise. We are taught that our bodies belong to us alone, and will be used as tools to judge our character and dedication to the self. Our culture dictates that our body is an extension of our ego, a physical sense of self and value.
But, knowing that we each contain multitudes, we can look at the body in a sacred and selfless way. No matter what our bodies look like or how they perform in strength and endurance, they are home to trillions of organisms. We are, each of us, a world for trillions of living things. The human body is a universe, not only of microbes, but also of each individual cell that spends its whole life working to keep us healthy and alive. The idea of “me” as a singular entity, from a biological perspective, does not truly describe the human body. I am countless, infinite life forms, all working together to produce the being that my eyes perceive as singular.
This perspective on the human body has made me feel a new sense of love and responsibility to my physical form. If I wouldn’t want to harm others, how could I harm myself? How could I discount the body that holds so much life, so many beautiful creatures conspiring every day to keep me alive? How could I look at my own skin with anything but wonder, knowing what I see is really a vast fabric of cells and bacteria pulsing with life?
I hope that when you look at your own body, when you feed it and wash it and move it, you too can see a bit of the wonder of your own inner multitudes.