Out of sight , out of mind.

There are certain things we just don’t talk about. We don’t seem to see these things even if they stare right into our faces because they are taboos. Some of the most prominent members of the taboo family are the living, naked, human body and its various, below the waist functions. This is strange, because such matters are most natural and they are totally commonplace since we experience them constantly, day in and day out.

What are taboos? They are bans or prohibitions resulting from an emotional aversion to something unmentionable, untouchable, unclean. Taboos are excluded from our conversation and have no place in our thoughts, because somehow we don’t want to, or are unable to deal with them. Are taboos rooted in our subconscious minds as remnants of some long forgotten events in our evolution history? Who can tell? It is most unfortunate, however, that they prevent us from dealing with reality and from accepting ourselves completely the way we are. Because of taboos, some parts of our being, although we know well enough that they are there, are shrouded in a mysterious darkness, which has neither form nor name. The result is that we have in us a built in source of alienation making us constantly uneasy, fearful, and even ashamed for no other reason than the notion that something in us is taboo. Thanks to these personal secrets of unknown origins, some of us have managed to achieve to practice a permanent state of denial.

I was baby sitting for friends of mine. The little girl in my care was just a toddler, at an age when she mastered the art of sitting on the toilet, but not yet the tricks of the trade of wiping herself clean after a bowel movement. By the way, the use of a euphemism “bowel movement” is a warning sign that we are approaching a taboo territory: the excretory functions of the human body. As the evening developed, we had a terrific time. It was winter and the heat was on in the house. We were sitting on the floor next to a heat register and discovered that if we put a tissue paper right over the register, the hot air will keep the paper floating in the air, lifting it slowly higher. The little girl laughed and laughed watching the paper float and flutter. Then came time for dinner. Meat and vegetables à la Gerber for toddlers, peach cobbler, and fresh grapes were on the menu. When we got to the grapes, she asked me if I would peel them for her. I said to myself “Why not!” As I proceeded to peel off the skins of the grapes one by one, I ended up with a bunch of small, green, gelatinous, oozing blobs. She took them in her stride. In matter of fact, she seemed to enjoy them quite a lot. After dinner I cleaned up and was about to get her ready for bed when she had to go to the bathroom. I knew that my help will be needed, so I went with her. There she was, a beautiful little girl with skirts and panties down sitting on the edge of the toilet seat and looking at me with big, dark eyes and without the slightest embarrassment. As she strained a bit, her face slowly turned a deep shade of pink because of the effort she had to make. I shall cherish this image forever. It was so normal, so simple, and so beautiful. She has not yet been touched by the evil hand called Taboo.
This experience was very healing to me. It seemed to emphasize the idea that our taboos do not necessarily originate in our biological nature but they may be merely cultural products. In other words, they may be rooted more in our history than in our evolution. I came to the conclusion that taboos are the regrettable byproducts of civilization. I have no doubt in my mind that this statement holds true for many of our attitudes about our nakedness and bodily functions, and generates for us a multitude of hangups. (See the essay: Naked, in this collection of essays.)

Apart from being cultural, another feature of taboo traits is that they are very personal. It all works together like a conspiracy. Taboo items, although part of an external culture, are also personal and private because through our upbringing they become internalized. In ordinary circumstances, we do not speak about private, personal matters. Now, if this personal trait has been also loaded with a feeling of unexplainable shame, it must, of course, remain hidden at all cost. With that, the conspiracy surrounding the taboo is reinforced by a chasm of silence that may seem to be far too deep and wide to be breached. What should we do? Should we try to remove the protective cover of silence and see what the taboo objects really are, or should we just leave things alone? The answer to this question is a matter of balance of values. The price we pay to maintain our silent taboos is that we must then accept the consequences of a process of alienation from ourselves, we must remain in a state of denial about some fundamental aspects of our lives, and we must limit our self awareness to a form of somewhat controlled intellectual exercise, restricting our sense of reality. In other words, with taboos hiding in our closets we are not free to experience life fully. For some, including myself, this is a far too high a prize to pay for the benefit taboos provide which is simply that we remain within the accepted rules of conduct in our western, civilized society. After all, there is comfort in the experience that we are part of something greater than ourselves, that we belong. Or may be taboos are protective devices against those things that are unbearable elements of human nature. I sort of doubt that this could be the case since, as far as I know, taboos vary in different cultures.
These alternatives, of course, present us with a dilemma. Either we live with our taboos and pay the price, or we expose them and pay the price. Fortunately, there is a way out of this conflict situation. If we manage to recruit a large number of people who feel that at least certain taboos got to go, then we may even have the best of two worlds. To achieve this result, some of us discontents must speak up and risk the scorn of the traditional stiff necks.

Throughout our childhood we have been indoctrinated to feel shame over certain features and functions of our bodies. This process of indoctrination has not been provided for us as a well written formal teaching, but it comes to us through myriads of impression, facial expressions, indirect words and gestures forming a complex mosaic of rather personal and not quite clear or well reasoned convictions. Taboos operate on the level of feelings associated with many of our social customs

The best way to see how this process works is to recall past, personal experiences and interpret them the best way we can. Obviously, not only the experiences but also their interpretations will carry a personal character. For an actual example here is a rather small sample of taboo forming experiences from my own childhood and beyond, as I remember them.

Experience 1. I was five years old and was playing with a wooden fire truck outside our apartment on a railed landing. Our apartment was on the third floor. I managed to wedge the truck between two uprights of the railing with the wheels facing me and got a great deal of enjoyment as I spun the wheels with my hands as fast as they would go. For more effect, I added a “vrooom, vrooom” sound to the game. To do all this I had to squat down and my shorts did not cover the two bulges on the inside of my thighs just above the knees. The mail man came and I stood up quickly to make sure that these two fleshy bulging things disappeared from view before he could see them. I was intensely embarrassed by these parts of my anatomy and no stranger was allowed to see them.

Experience 2. When I was a toddler and reached the Freudian anal stage of development, out of curiosity I explored my anal apparatus with a finger. From the toilet I went to the kitchen and my mother noticed my soiled hand. She grabbed my hand and washed it under the kitchen faucet explaining to me, but may be more to herself, that the toilet paper must have got broken. It was obvious to me that my mom’s explanation was an attempt to explain away the truth: I was exploring my butt with a great deal of excitement and fascination. After that I knew that certain parts of my body are taboo. Nonetheless, I took the Hungarian edition of my Raggedy Andy doll and with my crayon drew an anus on it in the proper place just to make sure that all things were well with him.

Experience 3. I could not have been more than four when I was subjected to a minor surgery. I was born with my right earlobe completely unattached. At the time, we were living in Hungary under the shadow of the German eugenics movement. It was a time when Aryan perfection was the guide, and birth defects, even within the range of normal variations, may have become hazardous to your health. So my mom asked a doctor to attach my free earlobe to my face. The operating room was warm and I got drenched in sweat, so immediately after surgery I was stripped by the nurse and rubbed down with a towel. Standing there naked before all these strange people, I had an erection which made me feel so humiliated that I started to cry. Nobody seemed to understand why I was crying so desperately.

Experience 4. In my family we never kissed on the lips. The explanation was that lip kissing is unhygienic. As far as hugs were concerned, my memory is blank. I am sure that I was held, but I do not remember a real, embracing and squeezing, loving hug as regular part of my upbringing. In those days, boys were supposed to be rough and tough cookies.

Experience 5. Entering the Jesuit noviciate at the age of nineteen, I also entered a totally no-touch culture. The idea was that we have to subdue and discipline our bodies because the body is a source and occasion of sin. We were expected to mold ourselves a spiritual body devoid of sinful needs and desires. For me the immediate result of all this was that I got very ill.

Experience 6. More recently I was visiting my friends, Jennifer and Michael. They just had their first baby girl. They are of Italian extraction, and are full of life. Granny, Michael’s mother, was there visiting for a few days to see her new grandchild, and just when I was with them she changed the diapers of the baby. As she removed the soiled diapers and wiped her clean she muttered, “Shame, shame!”, in a kind of baby talk. Jennifer was furious, but knowing that her mother-in-law will soon be gone, she did not say anything to her. As she was going downstairs she muttered something to the effect that everything the baby has is beautiful and how old fashioned attitudes can scar a child for life.

Experience 7. And here is one last example, and that from the Scripture. This passage from John 21:7-8 caught my attention a number of times. After the miraculous catch of fish at lake Tiberias “the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’ At these words: ‘It is the Lord.’ Simon Peter who had practically nothing on, wrapped his cloak round him and jumped into the water. The other disciples came on in the boat, towing the net and the fish; they were only about a hundred yards from land.”

As it was stated before, the interpretation of these experiences is just as personal as the experiences themselves are personal. The point is not that some people would interpret these events differently from the way I do. That would be expected. What is presented here is simply a subjective description and interpretation of a tiny fragment out of a vast human experience about the internalization of shame over certain natural issues. As to my contribution, here are the interpretations.

Interpretation 1. At five, I was ashamed of my body. The object of shame was expressed in a symbolic way, placed close but yet at a safe distance from the primary source which was at the time diffused and nameless. The real object of shame was the part of my body which I had to hide from all eyes, including the members of my family, by wearing shorts. At the age of five, I already acquired my taboos, they were set deep and completely internalized. In terms of my culture, I have been brought up well. It is clear to me that the process of inculturation followed along the lines of negative reinforcers, because the object of taboo is covered by a vague and general sense of irrational shame. Positive reinforcement would have resulted in clear and specific responses of good sense.

Interpretation 2. May be the interpretation of the second experience is the key to the first, because this took place about a year earlier. In my curiosity I broke through the taboo barrier. I have done something forbidden and shameful about something we don’t talk about. The experience was pleasurable and exciting, but what followed engraved deeply into me was the idea that pleasure is bad and shameful and so the object of pleasure is taboo. In this experience, I also showed a bit of rebellion against the way mom seemed to interpret my behavior because I knew I was dealing here with something necessary and natural. Today It is clear to me that the content of the taboo is not just a normal aversion for something that is dirty, unhygienic, and smells bad, but shame which goes way beyond the power of senses. In context of the experience, this shame is out of place, and in magnitude, it is totally disproportionate. It is interesting to realize that our taboos are inherited in a cultural sense because the reinforcer is the taboo itself saying, often not with words but with more subtle yet just as effective signals: We just don’t do that! Shame on you!.”

Interpretation 3. The third experience is full of entanglement. There is the message about the need to correct certain “imperfections” even if they are just normal variants. We judge perfection according to standards of culture, and not according to the wisdom of nature. There is a split between the cultural and the natural in us, and the two are set up against each other in a destructive conflict. Being civilized, we like to be called refined, and sophisticated, and we look upon the below the waist functions of the human body as debased, animal like. The result is that we dislike and are ashamed of what God has given us in our natural perfections. It is the same story, we “decorate” what is given, and by doing so we destroy the natural beauty of the original. We are both, ashamed and afraid of that what is natural, and to control it we either change it, or banish it from consciousness by covering it with shame. It is obvious that we find ourselves unacceptable and unlovable. After all, wouldn’t we treasure the little idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, and even imperfections of those whom we really love? Those things would then be precious and not to be changed. Our taboos are a heavy setback in our learning to love and accept ourselves and each other.

Interpretation 4. What a time it was before the Second World War. My family, a deeply loving and caring family, was touched by the wind from Sparta. As to children, there were two boys, my older brother and I. We were never really scolded, never spoken to with a raised voice. A glance from mom was enough to keep us in line. We were not cuddled because we were boys, and boys do not cuddle, only girls do such things. The gender roles were clear. My father was the provider, my mom the source of life. We two kids had to be strong and help mom in various tasks. Bodily pleasures were restricted to meals and those were eaten together, with decorum, well within the rules of proper etiquette. When I complained at table that my brother got more than I, my mom simply changed our plates, and then I realized that actually the opposite was true. I had absolutely no knowledge that my parents had any sex ever. It was easy to accept that kiss on the lips is unhygienic. Only my mom and dad kissed each other on the lips and that only as a form of a fleeting gesture and a sign of parental status. As to hugs, I just did not know better. In matter of fact I had strong negative experiences against hugs. We often visited my uncle and his family. His wife, a very heavy lady full of fat and exuberance, always gave me a big hug. I dreaded the moment, because it felt like drowning inside her enormous, soft and yielding bosoms. The positive effect of low profile physical contact was a kind of discipline, which I later realized to be a condition of success in life. As to negative effects I can find several. One was that I grew up to be far too independent, a bit of an antisocial loner. Another negative effect was that I often found it difficult to be in touch with myself. I used to prefer to live an intellectual life devoid of deeper feelings. Thanks to God, the events of my life demolished most of these barriers by now. At that time, however, my physical and my spiritual aspects of life were slowly taken apart and set against each other. It was the duty of Dr. Jekyll to control Mr. Hide.

Interpretation 5. At the time I did not understand what was going on around me in the noviciate. I was nineteen years old. In my enthusiasm to follow God’s call to become a priest, I was ready to do anything. I knew that my body had certain desires which were sinful. I also knew that sin was like a dark cloud, an unhappy distance between God and me, and that often it was a source of great anguish for me. For these reasons, I was willing to break my body and beat it into submission. Without knowing, I was in the grip of a Manichaean, Pelagian, Stoic trap. I despised my body for being hungry for food and sex, and for being thirsty for anything else but God. Cutting my roots to this earth I started to wither. That is why I got very ill. I do not blame anyone for this experience of desperate trial. It happened in spite of the fact that the novice master was really full of good will toward us. I have learned a lesson from this experience, and it runs very deep. Today, I am trying to heal the wound between the natural and the spiritual aspects of my life by thanking God for my body, and look upon it as his gift of life to me. I am trying to exchange shame for grateful wonder over every aspect of my physical being. I do my best to use God’s gifts and not to abuse them. If I fall short, I am sorry, but then I rejoice once more in God’s healing love and mercy. If the gifts themselves fail me, and they will, I know there is an even greater gift yet to come. Unfortunately, the scars of my taboos still hurt a lot and they cause me great anguish from time to time. When I am caught in their thorns, I place myself into God’s love and mercy. It is he who guides me and leads me to restful waters.

Interpretation 6. I love Jennifer. I rejoice in how much we feel the same way about these things. I would like, however, to go a little further than being appreciative of children. I agree, they are something else! They are the most beautiful people in the world, and everything they have carries the hallmark of natural grace. In a different way, however, every phase of human life is endowed with its own grace. I do not accept the youth cult that surrounds me. I find it silly that people lie about their age instead of pronouncing it with pride. Denying my age would be the same for me as denying my life, and with it, denying the tremendous importance of the present moment. My life is a testimony for me to the love and mercy of God, and my present moment is the most precious, because it is an opportunity for me to say to God once more in return, “I love you too.”

Interpretation 7. The experience of taboos goes way back to the very roots of our Judeo-Christian culture. As far back as the fifth century B.C., when the book of Genesis was written, there is an account of shame which, as the account goes, Adam and Eve felt over certain parts of their bodies. “So they sewed fig-leaves together to make themselves loin-cloths. (Genesis 3:7.) In the originally quoted New Testament passage (John 21:7-8), the idea seems to be that we should not appear before God naked because it would be disrespectful. After all, our nakedness, which clearly implies the genital and the anal regions of the human body, is offensive, and therefore, demeaning and shameful. Peter, before presenting himself to Jesus, covered his naked body in an instinctive action and jumped into the water without really thinking this through. And that is precisely the point. At the heart of all taboos is the deeply internalized but irrational shame over our nakedness. Only heavens know why in our culture nakedness refers to parts of the body which are involved in excretory and reproductive functions. There is a bit of insanity in all this.

In this small sample of seven personal experiences, and their seven personal interpretations a world view is presented in a subtle fashion. It is a devastating world view. Our taboos are the sources of much unhappiness in our lives. In a philosophical sense, they lead us into false and sometimes, as history proves it, destructive dichotomies between the material and the spiritual, between the flesh and the spirit, the sinful and the virtuous. Our taboos will not allow us to be fully integrated with ourselves, and so they prevent us to be fully alive. The shame our taboos imply does not allow us to accept our physical realities. But you see, what we are ashamed of are all God’s created gifts. Our taboos do not control evil in us, but they easily become a source of evil. Is there a way to be healed? There is a lot of work to be done.

A healing exercise.

Lie down facing the ceiling with a small pillow for head support, and with or without clothes, whichever is best for you. Spend a few moments relaxing. Breath deeply and slowly and feel as all the tensions leave your body through your head, fingers and toes. Then with, your eyes closed, slowly lift your hands and touch your hair, your ears and your face. Your touch should be sometimes very light, other times more firm. Pause for brief moments at various parts of your face feeling the textures and the warmth of your skin. Next explore your arms and hands with one hand and then with the other. Do the same, all the way down your body to the tip of your toes, finding positions that are the best suited for the task. Take your time. Try to fuse the two experiences, the feel of touching and the feel of being touched. Explore the many sensations of touch without any special thought or reservation. Identify the feeling of your touch with yourself. This is you. By accepting everything that you touch and feel, you become one with yourself. Then work your way up again slowly, all the way to the top of your head. Repeat this as many times as you need to. Finally, lie peacefully for a little while and feel the touch of the ground and the gentle pull of the earth’s gravity. Convince yourself by lifting up your leg or arm and feel the pull of the earth, then let it go. In this you feel your roots and the reality that your roots are of the earth from which you were taken. Expand this feeling and embrace the whole earth and all the living beings in it. Then lift your mind to God and thank him for the gift of being alive, and ask him for healing and strength in body and mind. Rest for a few moments in God’s loving presence.


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