I’m currently reading (among other texts) I Contain Multitudes, which is all about microbiology and the gut, and The Daily Stoic (guess what that’s about). Stoicism emerged as a philosophy from a bunch of privileged white guys who valued their intelligence so highly that they created a worldview to justify their casual pride about it (and then slyly built humility in as one of their prevailing values). Basically, if you’re practicing stoicism, you rely on reason and intelligence to help you stay in control of what you can: your reason and intelligence. That is, you detach from emotions and passions because you know that they’re misunderstandings about reality; they’re grounded in things you can’t control (e.g. circumstance, other people, nature). It’s similar to (my tenuous understanding of) Buddhism in its focus on non-attachment. Control your emotional and intellectual interpretation/response to things, rather than the things themselves; the latter is a hopeless, painful ambition, the former a calming life force. The serenity prayer is stoicism in a nutshell.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,Courage to change the things I can,And wisdom to know the difference.
As someone who’s relied maybe too often on his supposed intelligence, this strokes my old ego a little well. “Wait, so I can just think my way into peace and happiness? Of course I can!” As someone who is currently dealing with a gut issue, stoicism faces an interesting challenge. What happens when my reason and intelligence come up against my microbiome? What is the relationship between my gut and my capacity to even understand what stoicism is, let alone try to practice it?
A few passages from I Contain Multitudes in its third chapter made me scratch my head (or maybe pat my head and rub my belly at the same time; the difficulty of that alone may serve as a functional metaphor for the reality of the mind-gut connection) because they brought to mind the possibility that I am ever in service to gut microbes. In other words, they, with their own evolutionary agenda, are running the show, and I’m just the puppet. Richard Dawkins suggested as much about genes in The Selfish Gene, so maybe it extends to, or rather, finds the greatest truth in, “selfish” bacteria. Bacteria have been around long before us, so our so-called symbiosis with them may be the deepest form of internalized oppression imaginable. (And then our bacteria have given us a history of cruel colonialism…how dare they, right? It’s nice to have an effectively invisible scapegoat. But they are there, and they do matter…)
Anyway, the passages:
We put such a premium on our free will that the prospect of losing independence to unseen forces informs many of our deepest societal fears. Our darkest fiction is full of Orwellian dystopias, shadowy cabals, and mind-controlling supervillains. But it turns out that the brainless, microscopic, single-celled organisms that live inside us have been pulling on our strings all along.
This isn’t surprising, nor disconcerting. I accept that I’m driven by things I can’t control, except…can’t I control them? This is where stoicism collides with science. If it’s true (and Ed Yong makes no such categorical claims in the book, knowing the constant contingency of scientific understanding, and the particular complexity of this field of research) that my gut is really in control, then can I really rely on my reason and intelligence? What if my reason and intelligence come from a particular strand of bacteria? What if the me typing this is really just some tiny shape swimming in my stomach? Or maybe, is it as simple as relying on my intelligence to experience equanimity? Can reason trump whatever it is that happens in the gut? My microbiome might create conditions where my brain can’t function “properly,” where I no longer have access to the intelligence that stoicism promises is always mine. Now that is disconcerting. Or at least fascinating.
When you choose your meals, you are also choosing which bacteria get fed, and which get an advantage over their peers. But they don’t have to sit there and graciously await your decision. As we have seen, bacteria have ways of hacking into the nervous system. If they released dopamine, a chemical involved in feelings of pleasure and reward, when you ate the ‘right’ things, could they potentially train you to choose certain foods over others? Do they get a say in your menu picks?
Oh man, this has been an ongoing struggle as I’ve tried to navigate this gut issue. When I “want” a particular type of food, I always wonder: is that me, or is that the candida? Now, I don’t even know what qualifies as “me,” and every decision feels like a foolish one. So I constantly assume I’m screwed no matter what. I can’t identify who I am in terms of my gut, so I don’t where to start, where to stop, where to look. It’s an absurd conundrum. But it’s one now that I’m viewing more as a fun experiment, a weird game, rather than an internecine battle. Because it’s really complicated, this mind-gut thing. And that’s kind of cool to be in the middle of. It doesn’t mitigate the physical fatigue and mental foginess (among other symptoms), but it does cast the entire process in a different light. It’s an exploratory journey, a learning opportunity (as long as it doesn’t kill me too quickly).
So hey, observe your cravings and wonder where they’re coming from. Do you need that cheesecake, or is that some deleterious bacteria pulling your brain’s strings? Hell, maybe it’s both. Then who knows what to do.
Our gut microbes are different. They are a natural part of our lives. They help to construct our bodies – our gut, our immune system, our nervous system. They benefit us. But we shouldn’t let that lure us into a false sense of security. Symbiotic microbes are still their own entities, with their own interests to further and their own evolutionary battles to wage. They can be our partners, but they are not our friends. Even in the most harmonious of symbioses, there is always room for conflict, selfishness, and betrayal.
What a dramatic narrative I’m embroiled in! Or there’s no such story. There are no parts. Things are happening. It is what it is. And I get to decide how I respond to it. With reason and intelligence. Thank you to the microbe guiding me to this conclusion…or should I say: I’m watching you, microbe.