Fatigue and recuperation of the senses

For many of us in this predominantly Christian nation, Easter is a time for spiritual reflection on the meaning of our lives, the certainty of death, and the promise of eternal life. But whether we admit it or not, it’s also a time for a break—whatever that might mean. Perhaps a break from the dullness of everyday routine and the incurable stubbornness of our national problems. Or a break from the hatred and the spectacle of mass violence that seem to characterize much of what is happening in the world today.

What we seek to interrupt can be anything. Many of us might find momentary diversion from whatever troubles us, only to return to the same rut with a heightened feeling of dislike for the way things are. For years after my wife Karina’s passing in 2019, I felt I had lost all taste for life. I stopped doing the things I used to enjoy—riding my motorcycle and watching birds on weekends. Exhausted and restless, I took long and aimless walks instead.

I felt like the man Lucretius was describing in this passage from the Epicurean classic “On the nature of things”: “Often a man bored with staying at home will leave his huge residence for some other place, then suddenly return, since going away does nothing to improve the way he feels … he is sick and does not know the cause of his disease.”

I turned to the literature on grief to understand what I was going through, hoping to find some lessons on how to deal with it. I read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the work of the British lay theologian C.S. Lewis, books on Zen, yoga, Hindu philosophy, stoicism, and epicureanism, etc.

Looking back, I guess I was trying to fill my mind with other people’s thoughts when what I probably needed more was to reawaken my senses that grief had stilled. By this I mean literally learning how to see, hear, taste, smell, and feel again—in short, re-educating the senses. Perhaps this is more basic than what is usually understood as mindfulness, with its emphasis on breathing as a way of stemming the rush of thoughts.

Recently, I came upon a fascinating essay in the archives of The Atlantic magazine that precisely addresses this subject. Written by the medical doctor and public health specialist Paul W. Goldsbury with the unusual title “Recreation through the senses” and first published in the magazine’s March 1911 issue, the article is, in its straightforward practicality, the opposite of all the philosophical stuff I had been reading.

“Fatigue,” Goldsbury writes, “is really a mild form of illness, which arises from over-exerting some one part of the body.” The problem is that we seldom think of our senses the same way we think of our limbs and muscles. “[T]he varying offices of the purely sense-organs—sight, hearing, touch, and the rest—are to a considerable degree ignored … Whether we are conscious of it or not, they are always at work, and the whole body often suffers from the overstrain which we carelessly allow our surroundings to impose upon these special organs.”

“All print fatigues the eye after a short time,” he writes. But at least the overworked eye can relieve itself with a blink, or by completely shutting off. But what defenses does the ear have other than by getting away as far as possible from what assaults or pierces it? The same is true for the nose, which may easily be overcome by particles of dust that “not only irritate its linings near the nerves of smell, and thus interfere with their work and function, but may also contain a medley of odors.”

The smell of certain things—like the fleeting fragrance of the dama de noche on a misty evening, of the rosemary plant in a newly sprinkled garden, or the bracing aroma of newly brewed coffee—can summon pleasurable memories that rekindle the whole body. In contrast, the heavy smoke from the previous night’s firecrackers and burning tires can debase the freshness of a New Year’s Day morning and fatigue the nose for the rest of the day.

In like manner, nothing is more punishing to the sense of taste than having to consume “unrelished” food. In my own experience, this often occurs when I have to take something to avert hunger or only because it is supposed to be healthful. The other night, on my way to a Cecile Licad concert, I ordered a hamburger at a drive-thru, expecting that it may be too late to have a proper meal after the event. It was a mistake. The lumpy sandwich splattered with mayo and ketchup lingered in my taste buds all evening, vitiating my ears’ reception of the rich sounds of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.” For Goldsbury, “the sense of taste should be the true index to the kind of food that is really needed.”

Then there is the sense of touch, “from which all the other senses have been evolved.” The skin on our face, which is closest to all the other sense organs, is probably, by reason of its location, our skin’s most sensitive part. For me, nothing perks up all the senses more than a hot or cold clean towel on one’s face after settling down in one’s seat in a crowded plane.

We get the most out of life, says the author, when, by a willful use of our senses, we are able to take from our everyday surroundings the simple pleasures that sustain in us a feeling of aliveness and awe. Happy Easter!