ThingsToLearnFromLiver

As part of my MindfulBiology project, I recently posted a graphic (see image heading this essay) that listed things we can learn from our livers. The first item was: neutralize toxicity.

The post was an experiment; it seemed like a quirky way to exploit the body’s wisdom. But when a colleague remarked, “How to neutralize toxicity? Would be a nice topic to write about…,” I decided to take her suggestion.

What follows is a partial list of the ways our bodies protect us from poisons, and how we can emulate their wisdom.


By blocking entry:

The brain is protected by a ‘blood-brain barrier.’ Its capillary linings differ from those elsewhere: they exclude small water-soluble molecules. Since many such substances can affect nerve transmission, they need to be screened prior to entry. Those that are necessary get picked up by special systems; the rest are kept out.

We can use this principle to screen out unhelpful comments from strangers. For the most part, people who don’t know us can’t provide valid feedback. We’re unlikely to learn anything useful from the angry driver we inadvertently cut off on the freeway. Likewise, those with clear prejudice against our ethnic group are not good sources of feedback.

Many people find it easy to deflect comments from suspect quarters, but those who are highly sensitive and caring may find it difficult. The skill’s usefulness is obvious and forms the basis of the common admonition: consider the source. Remarks from the unhelpful are best blocked out.

By deconstructing:

The liver screens myriad chemicals in our blood for potential hazards. When toxic ones are found, they get broken down into smaller, less dangerous pieces. Some of the resulting subunits can be used by the body; the rest are discarded.

We can employ a similar principle in daily life. If a coworker complains, “you’re always late,” we can separate the factual (I was late twice last month) from the inaccurate (the rest of the days, I was on time). We can take responsibility for our behavior without internalizing unfair criticisms. I can make amends for occasional tardiness, but although I might want to point out the false generalization, it’s not my responsibility. The useful can be addressed; the useless can be discarded.

By tagging:

The immune system produces antibodies that attach to bacteria, viruses, and other infectious agents. Invaders tagged with antibodies get destroyed.

We can tag comments in the same way. Profanities and insults can be labelled as such and dismissed without consideration. Remarks clearly intended to be hurtful can be similarly tagged, though it may be somewhat harder to keep them from causing pain. Even so, the very act of labelling a remark as insulting or hurtful protects us—a little—from harm.

Note that sometimes input from loved ones benefits from tagging. Exhausted spouses often feel irritable; their comments are more likely to be hurtful than helpful. During such times, it’s good policy to mentally discount such remarks with the label “she (or he) is tired and not thinking clearly.”

By adjusting to needs:

The intestinal lining picks up abundant vitamins less avidly than those in short supply. Adjusting uptake according to current needs is an important protection, because many essential compounds become toxic in high concentrations.

Most of us can handle constructive criticism in low doses. But too many ‘helpful’ comments discourage us. We have a right to tell those offering feedback when we’ve heard as much as we can handle. We can ask for a break to give us time to rest and reflect.

Sometimes we feel invincible, and feedback helps us do better; other times we feel vulnerable, and even the gentlest input stings. Sometimes we we want advice and other times we don’t. We can track our current strength and needs; we can invite comments or protect ourselves accordingly.

By sequestering:

Our bones store some toxic compounds, such as lead. Keeping poisons within the body isn’t the best solution, but sometimes it’s the only one available. As bone absorbs lead, blood levels decline, and this protects the brain from harm. Unfortunately, lead may leach out later and cause damage, but at least the immediate threat is reduced.

We all carry the residue of prior toxicity that remains tucked away when life is going smoothly but surfaces during times of stress and shame. Usually I’m comfortable around people, but every so often I say the wrong thing. When that happens, I try to chuckle at my ineptitude, but sometimes I hear my stepmother’s voice screaming: “You’re ugly, stupid, and weird!”

Mistreatment in childhood injects toxins that are never completely eliminated; major trauma can do the same in adulthood. But though these poisons of old conditioning remain with us, we can get better at managing them. We improve our ability to keep them sequestered; we learn to limit the destructiveness of their reactivation; we develop strategies for recovering more quickly after they cause problems. As years pass, our poison-control skills grow more effective.

Naturally, we’d prefer to eliminate the effects of hardship, not just manage them. Knowing that toxicity can be sequestered but not destroyed can feel discouraging when we first begin to deal with it. It’s easy to conclude, as I once did, that early trauma permanently diminishes us. Fortunately, time and growth prove otherwise.

An oyster protects itself from parasites and irritants by enclosing them in a pearl. What begins as threat ends up as beauty. Our sequestered traumas can be similarly transformed. Indeed, I believe any sincere, open-hearted desire for recovery leads toward precisely this outcome. Whether the pearl is completely formed before life’s end depends on factors such as social support, innate resilience, resource availability, and so on. Sadly, many people die still tormented by their pasts. But the potential for pearl-formation is inherent in life.

I no longer believe myself ruined by childhood hardships; instead, I know that I was sculpted by them. Every injury prepared me for the work I do now. Loss, neglect, humiliation, and despair shaped me into a man who is simultaneously vulnerable and invincible: vulnerable because I’m sensitive, wounded, and largely unguarded; invincible because I know my soul will—in due time—enfold pain in a pearl of wisdom and compassion.