Words to Live By: Biology Always Comes First

I’ll take well-known ones and modify them to fit me. For example, “If you want something done right do it yourself, OR get out of the way and let someone else do it for themselves.” Or: “Moderation in all things, including this sentiment.” I’ll adopt some whole cloth: “We must be very careful because if we don’t know where we are going we just might get there.” I steal them from my grandmother regularly–she’s the one who is fond of saying, “There are no $1,000 a night whores, only $1,000 a night johns,”–and make my own up completely.

As a semi-regular topic, I’ll drag one of these out and pick it apart to illustrate the value I find in it. As I often say, “there is wisdom in them there words,” and I want to share some of the things I’ve picked up over the years, wrapped up in a fun little bit of phrasing. Specifically today, let’s look at one of my frequent favorites, “Biology always comes first,” as well as its closely related cousin, “No one is at their best while puking.”

We are our bodies

Here’s a secret for you: we are our bodies. As far as I can see, that thing that we experience as us–our consciousness, awareness, agency, and individuality–is the result of every biological process going on from the top of our head to the tip of our toes. I understand that that is a big claim and, frankly, supporting it adequately is a task beyond any given 1,000-word blog post, including this one. For that noble task, I’ll refer you to the great works of such thinkers as Daniel Dennett, V.S. Ramachandran, and Oliver Sacks. Go to them to back that claim up, should you feel the need. Or take an IQ test in a normal state and then take one while you are violently ill and compare the results. And, BTW, if you’re a spiritualist who thinks that which makes us up is a metaphysical thing, such as a soul, read on. Even if you disagree with this basic premise, I think you can find value in some of its implications.

When I say, “biology always comes first,” I mean if we are sufficiently tired, sick, dehydrated, underfed, or otherwise haven’t met the needs of the biological machine that defines us, we can not be our best selves. Indeed, once those unmet needs hit a hard limit, we can’t even be the person we normally think of as, us. Most of the time I’m a fairly capable and strong man. But when I get sick enough, I’m a lump of whiny flesh that thinks it’s going to die and is happy to share that knowledge with anyone close by.

Feed the beast

So, if we want to be the best partner we can be to our friends, lovers, family, co-workers, and every other being around us, we have to start by answering the needs of our biology. We have to be well fed, rested, hydrated and cared for in order to care well for others. Any chronic conditions have to be as well treated as possible. There is, of course, a wide range between, needs well enough to get by, and needs so undermet function is impossible, and that range varies from person to person. A six-hour-night sleep is enough for one person, while another needs nine. But take either of them to zero for enough nights in a row, and eventually neither of them are going to be worth a shit. We all share the ends of the range, even if the middle varies dramatically from person to person and time to time.

There’s another level of consideration here. When social considerations conflict with biological ones, the biological ones come first. For all that I might have promised to attend a given social event, when I’m sick, I won’t be there. Furthermore, when another set of biological processes intercedes, such as an intimate of mine being sick, I very well may not be there, either. No matter how law-abiding anyone may be, if they are hungry enough (or addicted enough), they will steal anything that isn’t nailed down. Even if everyone in the office are great people, food will go missing from the communal refrigerator from time to time.

For all that I will strive to be polite, and not fart in public (say), there comes a moment when the biological impulse will simply win and wind will be broken, body odor will be smelt, and juices may flow. That’s OK, because in the final analysis, we are those biological processes, and so to honor another’s life, experience, agency, or “soul,” I have to honor the biology that creates it. And, truthfully, that biology will express itself whether I honor it or not, so I might as well make things easy for it and me both. Because, after all, I am that biology.

All true wealth is biological

This also means that biological satisfaction is always my first goalfor me and those around me. I want to make sure that everyone is well cared for and feels safe and comfortable before we start addressing those relationship issues. Is there a rough topic we need to discuss? Then let’s have a nice meal, trade some massages, and hold hands while we do so. Let’s make sure the biological machine is well cared for, fully lubricated, and warmed up before we try to take it over bumpy roads.

When biology comes first, you understand that you’ll have to take an occasional sick day for work and that any feelings of guilt for doing so are based on something other than the actual need to recuperate. When biology comes first, you know you have to take a disco nap before the late night party, if you really want to rock it. When biology comes first, you have learned that shopping while hungry often doesn’t work out as well as you might have thought. When biology comes first, the needs of your friends, family, and lovers outrank those of your car, virtual characters, and other things around you. Having a well fed and well loved pet becomes more important than having the right hairstyle. And when a partner says, “I can’t make it tonight, I just don’t feel up to it,” you understand and can support them as they take care of their biological machine.

So here’s to the first of a series of examinations of my favorite aphorisms. We’ve still got such gems as those listed in the introduction and another favorite, “Everyone’s shovel is always full,” looming in the future. As always, thanks for reading and if you have any questions or comments, leave them below. 



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