Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gloriously Female

At the halfway point of your mother’s uterine life, she had all the eggs nestling and jostling about in her little ovaries that she would ever have. At twenty weeks she had 6 to 7 million proud eggs within her, fresh heirlooms of genetic brilliance all. A woman’s egg, her offering in the formation of a new human soul, is yet another example of nature’s lavish abundance. For “the millions of eggs that we women begin with are cleanly destroyed through an innate cell program called apoptosis. The eggs do not simply die— they commit suicide. Their membranes ruffle up like petticoats whipped by the wind and they break into pieces, thence to be absorbed bit by bit into the hearts of neighboring cells. By graciously if melodramatically getting out of the way, the sacrificial eggs leave their sisters plenty of hatching room.” (1) The eggs that survived the sweeping rejection of apoptosis now await their chance to slide down the fallopian tube to the uterus. Here, many years later, the egg that formed you was one of the few who were surprised to be eagerly met by thousands of sperm whipping and racing towards it. One sperm penetrated the luminous egg and formed you— a statistical miracle.

Though you were either genetically male (XY) or female (XX) at fertilization, your sex was otherwise indistinguishable for the next several weeks. The male and female gonads plod along without committing to either sex into the sixth week of gestation before converting into either ovaries or testes. Little boys immediately go about egging on their prized gonads, whose job is to pump out the testosterone that affects the remainder of their development. Girls are a bit shyer; they set about primping their müllerian duct into the appropriate internal organs a few weeks later. By birth, you came into the world a fully female baby with your chromosomes, reproductive organs, hormone levels, and brain processing all intricately synchronized like a master Russian ballet.

“Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t. I'm sorry to say so but, sadly it's true that bang-ups and hang-ups can happen to you.”(2) This timeless wisdom from Dr Seuss aids me in warning that at every step of the sexual differentiation, something can, and often does go wrong. The four defining sex characteristics include a person’s chromosomes, reproductive organs, hormone levels, and brain processing and a discrepancy between these puts someone into the category of being an intersexed person; that is, not fully male or female. Milton Diamond commented on intersexed development saying it is “biologically understandable while statistically uncommon” (3). “Ironically since the advancements in surgery have made it possible for intersex conditions to be concealed, many people are not aware of how frequently intersex conditions arise in human beings or that they occur at all” (4). How commonly is a person born who can’t be clearly defined as ‘male’ or ‘female’? A study that surveyed medical literature from 1955 to the present found that as many as 2% of live births do not conform to the ideal male or female (5).

The list of possible deviations is long. Some people have ambiguous genetic material with some XY cells and others XX. A common condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome occurs when chromosomal ‘males’ are androgen insensitive resulting in the body developing female genitals and hormone levels. Distinctively feminine to the eye and often in their gendered identity, AIS women often do not discover their condition until puberty or when they seek infertility treatments and a doctor informs them they are infertile due to the fact that they are— partially men. Likewise, genetic females can be prenatally overdosed with androgens resulting in partial male development. Any mis-measure of the hormonal cocktail produces a person whose sex cannot be confirmed by a quick diaper change. Not only is the amount of necessary uterine hormones precise, the timing is as well. The timing of hormonal exposure can result, for example, in a person who is a fully functional male on the outside, but partially female on the inside with most of the piping for female reproduction. “Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult, or dies of old age and is autopsied. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing” (6).

Unfortunately this is a reality that most people are unaware of, and of which I myself didn’t even stumble upon until three years into the research of this book when I had a hard time finding an answer to the basic question: ‘what does it mean to be female?’ Surprisingly, the common notion that females have XX chromosomes and boys the XY, is not even close to being true. The New York Times, in the excellent article “What If It's (Sort of) a Boy and (Sort of) a Girl?” notes: “even the International Olympic Committee acknowledged this when it suspended its practice of mandatory chromosomal testing for female athletes in 2000, reflecting current medical understanding that a female who tests positive for a Y chromosome can still be a woman” (7).

To be Continued...

  1. Angier, Natalie. Women: An Intimate Geography. New York; Peter Davison Publishing with Houghton Mifflin Company. 1999 P 3
  2. Diamond, Milton, H. Keith Sigmundson. “Management of Intersexuality: Guidelines for Dealing with Individuals with Ambiguous Genitalia.” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. (1997)
  3. Dr. Seuss. Oh The Places You’ll Go.
  4. Domurat Dreger, Alice. “‘Ambiguous Sex’ –Or Ambivalent Medicine?” The Hastings Center Report May/Jun 1998, Volume 28, Issue 3 P24-35.
  5. Blackless, Melanie, Anthony Charuvastra, Amanda Derryck, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Karl Lauzanne, Ellen Lee. How sexually dimorphic are we? Review and Synthesis. American Journal of Human Biology Volume 12 Issue 2, P 151 – 166
  6. Intersex Society of North America. “Does Having a Y Chromosome Make Someone A Man?” May 2006.
  7. Weil, Elizabeth. “What If It's (Sort of) a Boy and (Sort of) a Girl?” The New York Times. September 24, 2006

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

An Inferior Love

Shopping season has started again. I live at Herald square where the streets are lined with festive stores and on the corner, the famous Christmas windows of the world’s largest store. This year Macy's is playing ‘O Christmas Tree’ nearly 24 hours a day which you can hear with the windows shut on the top floor of my building. Christmas season alone probably accounts for why this street corner is deemed the fourth loudes-on the planet. The sidewalks outside my shop-lined street slow like traffic at rush hour. Never again will I complain about sitting in a climate controlled, adjusted seat car with music and cup holders; standing in traffic is immeasurably worst. Today while I was waiting to cross a street I glanced into a store’s windows at the purses. I know their price tags are well over what I make in a week, but I’m fairly confident that I wouldn’t want one even if my income easily allowed for one. (Somehow I escaped from a family of four daughters without a purse or shoe fetish, which is a rare phenomenon in this corner of the world.)

Augustine, genius of the patristic era, wrote of how “some things are to be enjoyed, others to be used, and there are others which are to be enjoyed and used.” Purses and shoes seem to me to be things I merely use— not things that I find great joy in when I get dressed in the morning. Now, I am not at all implying that luxury items are inherently unnecessary; if your first love is fashion and you live for designer purses, then by all means, delight in high craftsmanship. If your hobby is cars, get one with a good engine and leather interior. Fill your life with things that bring you joy which Augustine noted that we “cling to with love for its own sake.”

A strange trend is happening in America. I sense it in the air at Christmas time and read about it in the newspapers. I feel it surge up in me more often than I admit. All around us are people who have blurred the lines between belongings ‘to be enjoyed,’ and those meant ‘to be used.’ We seek gratification in common useful possessions, such as cars, houses, technology, and clothing. The point at which enjoyment becomes consumerism is when there is no differentiation between items of use and enjoyment. While there is nothing wrong with investing in aesthetics and good things, confusing the useful and the enjoyable goes to extremes very quickly. As though humans were not insatiable enough, this blurring deceives us into thinking that useful items must be upgraded in order to give us increasing satisfaction. There are three compelling reasons why life is more fulfilling when people are aware of the difference between useful material things and those which actually improve their quality of life.

The first is that few people have incomes that allow them to buy everything they can think of to buy. For the rest of the world who have to decide between purchases, being able to identify the option that will bring more pleasure will raise the value of every dollar spent. Material possessions that genuinely raise a person’s quality of life are few, because a person can have but a few passions in life unless they condition themselves to find joy in indiscriminate acquisition. For example, a person who will only be satisfied with a big house, fast car, flashy wardrobe, and extravagant vacations is most likely not an interior designer, car enthusiast, trend-setter, and a lover of new cultures. They have merely conditioned themselves to need the best of everything without really enjoying the possesions. But if you can condition yourself to need things, you can learn to go without them. If a person can learn to only spend their extra money on things that give them genuine delight, they will have more money and enjoyment.

The second reason to differentiate between the good and the useful, is because those things which have the power to give you joy also have the power to take it away. No one needs a life where they are flooded everyday with disappointment over their purse collection or vinyl seat coverings. Walk through the avenues of Manhattan and you may find yourself suddenly very discontented with everything in your possession, right down to your toothbrush holder. There are better thoughts to think than these. This leads into the third reason. The third and most important reason to grow in an awareness of this distinction is because, as Augustine notes, that when we “wish to enjoy those things which should be used, our course will be impeded and sometimes deflected, so that we are retarded in obtaining those things which are to be enjoyed, or even prevented altogether, shackled by an inferior love.” As Americans, we have trained ourselves to value things that once obtained, do not increase our actual quality of life in any way. Why do this, when there are so many more worthy pursuits to strive after? I will leave these crosswalk musings with one final warning from Augustine: “between temporal and eternal things there is this difference: a temporal thing is loved more before we have it, and it begins to grow worthless when we gain it, for it does not satisfy the soul whose true and certain rest is eternity; but the eternal is more ardently loved when it is acquired than when it is merely desired.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mere Christianity

The first thing to get clear about Christian morality between man and man is that in this department Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality. The Golden Rule of the New Testament (Do as you would be done by) is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right. Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities: it is quacks and cranks who do that. As Dr. Johnson said, "People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed." The real job of every moral teacher is to keep on bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles which we are all so anxious not to see...
The second thing to get clear is that Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political program for applying "Do as you would be done by" to a particular society at a particular moment. It could not have. It is meant for all men at all times and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another. And, anyhow, that is not how Christianity works. When it tells you to feed the hungry it does not give you lessons in cookery. When it tells you to read the Scriptures it does not give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English grammar. It was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences: it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal.

C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity Page 74

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Sky Is White

There’s this verse in Hosea that talks about rain—it begins: “sow with a view to righteousness, reap in accordance with kindness. Break up your fallow ground,” which may mean, don’t be like the unreceptive soil in Jesus’ parable of the sower which cannot receive good into it. Fallow ground is a poetic reference to the places in our lives where we are refusing grace. Fallow ground is the unfruitful part of your soul that is “choked with the worries and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14). Hosea says, break up the unfertile areas of your life and the last clause says why: “break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord until He comes to rain righteousness on you.” The thought that causes me to pause when I read this verse, is when it describes the righteousness that comes into a person’s life when they pursue wisdom. It rains on them.

It rains in Manhattan. It rains on streets where there is nothing growing. When I walk down the grey streets in the rain I think that somewhere there is a flower unfolding into the rain—nourished. Rain is indiscriminate. It falls on the just and on the unjust. I wonder if when I receive good into my life if that righteousness doesn’t just nourish my soul, but also those around me. Now when it rains, it reminds me how connected we all are, how my actions affect those around me and the world and how I too am touched by them.

It rains in on the streets of Manhattan.
It rains where nothing is growing and I think that somewhere there is a flower unfolding into the rain—nourished.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Thoughts on Identity III: There Are No Children Who Live Here

The second reason to pursue a sense of self that is separate from achievement is because this way of thinking naturally leads to a balanced life. This understanding of self will result in a heightened awareness of yourself as an organic person: one who has a context, a family or community they are a necessary part of, a person who has time to play with children and listen to the stories of those who have lived long and good years. Identify a place that places a high value on productivity and you will find a place where isolation is prominent, suicide rates are higher, and a population that has imbalanced age distributions. Manhattan is just such an example. There are no children who live here.

An awareness of how belonging shapes us will lead to a life that balances productivity with rest. And not just the type of rest that aims at maintaining functionality, but a rest that acknowledges worth which transcends productivity. Rest steps out of the working world to experience nourishment and the seldom transcendence that speaks to our souls. To balance our modern concept of identity with the meaningfulness that comes from belonging provides for the season when tragedy or old age will strip us all of our vitality. So, who are you, really, as a person? How you answer that question, shapes the world more than you would think.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Thoughts on Identity II: Beef, It's What's For Dinner

The first reason to pursue a sense of self that is separate from achievement is because valuing self only for production’s sake leads to destructive trends in society. The world has been permeated with evolutionary social-science for the past 150 years, which has lead to a world where unwanted children and ethnic groups, the poor, elderly, and handicapped have been exterminated in the name of the survival of the fittest. This atheistic worldview has no rational basis for ethics or logically consistent motives to help the weak in the society. While other nations have followed evolutionary thought to its logical conclusions, America, which is also influenced by Greco-Roman law and Judeo-Christian ethics, has been slower in moving toward this end.

A Judeo-Christian understanding of the world promotes the idea that human life is inherently valuable. This was particularly heinous to Nietzsche, who listed the intolerable Christians as the primary detriment to mankind’s evolutionary progress—they wouldn’t let elderly people just die or the plague-infested towns to be quarantined and starved. Buddhism is the only other religion that has regard for life, qua life, but it regards plant, animal, and human life to be equal which both elevates plant and animal life to the level of human dignity, and reduces human life to that of a plant’s. (The effects of these beliefs are exactly what you would think they would be, such as children starving while cows roam the streets, among other problems.) The top three sociologist in the world agree that people groups who agree that life is inherently valuable, will naturally emerge as the greatest force for justice, the quickest responders to disaster, and the most concerned for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Being someone who believes they have more value than just what they can contribute to society creates a world that has a place for those who do not contribute to the national GDP.