Red-headed stepchild

The question went something like this: So what is your opinion of your relationship to your own body?

Fourteen county jail residents and I were considering how our bodies figure in to the question of integrity. It’s an important question since the body is the vehicle though which our integrity, or lack thereof, is expressed.

As we went around the table, each participant offered a comment on the question. The first three or four answers were not memorable. The fourth, offered by a man I’ll call “Sam,” caught me off guard:

“I’ve treated my body like a red-headed stepchild.”

Anyone who by that point had tuned out fairly quickly tuned back in. Another participant, who had red hair, leaned forward to state unequivocally — to the laughter of all — that he was no one’s step-child.

Having never heard the expression before, I asked the respondent what he meant by it. He said that in just about every way he could think of he had mistreated and abused his body — alcohol, drugs, poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, and so on. He even opened his mouth to show missing teeth (possibly the result of using crystal meth).

Later, I consulted the Urban Dictionary and found this definition of red-headed stepchild: “A child who is obviously not your own, a child who is treated worse than other children in the family.”

Several other participants, using less colorful metaphors, also indicated their bodies had not fared well under the strain of bad habits, most especially drug and alcohol abuse. One man who has told the group that he’s been incarcerated ten times at this jail, several of those times for a DUI, proudly noted that his liver is still in good shape despite all the drinking. He looked at me as if to say, “No harm, no foul, right?”

This prompted me to refer everyone to something I’d included in the lesson material, a reference to Paul’s argument in Ephesians: “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it….”

I asked, “Do you agree with Paul that ‘no one ever hated his own flesh?'” The room was silent. I broke the silence by asking the question another way: Do you think that you love your own body, as Paul suggests? Several participants nodded, a few others said yes. I waited and looked around the room. More silence.

Finally, one of the oldest participants, a man approaching 60, said, “I don’t think I do. The way I have treated my own body over many years makes me now think that I probably must hate my body.” He looked at me for a few pregnant seconds and I just nodded.

Another participant, also older than most and one who often is the stand-up comedian of the group, agreed. “When I look at the way I have abused my body over the years, it’s hard for me to argue that there’s any love for myself in that kind of behavior.”

I am always happy when these classes include older men who are willing to be honest in the presence of much younger men about where their choices have gotten them. It’s one thing for me to draw the line between bad choices and bad outcomes. I’m expected to do that. But it is probably more persuasive when someone old enough to be their father stands before them in prison fatigues and offers himself as the object lesson of poor choices.

Paul’s statement is surely worth pondering. If “no one ever hated his own flesh,” what does that say about the way I’ve been treating my body all these years?

I’m long overdue to revise some of the material in this book on integrity. Driving away from the jail that night I had a thought. When I revise this particular lesson I must include this statement: “Your body is not a red-headed stepchild. When are you going to stop treating it like one?”


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