Brother Donkey Meets The Mind-Body Problem

The endearing St. Francis wore himself out with work and austerity, ecstasy and saintliness. In the end, he apologized to his poor beat up body, which he called Brother Donkey, for having used him so harshly. Most of my life I lived in my head, carless of the flesh. Now, I am falling to pieces in all the usual ways, an ugly realization that occasions this little homage to the saint.

The Mind-Body problem, of course, has vexed philosophers from a tradition that believed in, for want of a better word, souls. The thinking, imagining, dreaming part of ourselves seemed to be a passenger on the flesh, but not of it. Consciousness seemed so mysterious and ethereal that its attachment to base matter was incomprehensible and absurd. Our flesh was lumpen clay, whereas our minds were swift as light, free as the wind.

In our more empirical, rational, scientific, some would say reductionist, era, it appears that mind is not, in fact, distinct from brain but of it. Alter the brain with diet, toxins, hormones, uppers, downers, the plaque of old age and the mind lights up, goes mad or sputters and fails. Alas, our weak material selves alone are the stuff that dreams are made of.

The Mind-Body Problem

For decades I rode Brother Donkey,
Behaving for most like an ass.
I didn’t abuse him on purpose,
Never spurred him hard or fast.

I left him most days in the stable,
In decadent luxe to be fair,
Smokes, oceans of drink, a rich table
And barely knew he was there.

But now he has caught my attention.
I notice each day I can’t see,
Can’t hear, can’t eat what I want to.
Each step is a pain in the knees.

To sit causes screams that are spinal
And sleeping’s a pain in the neck.
Now the ‘me’ I amused being selfish,
While the flesh decayed from neglect,

Has belatedly had to acknowledge
That it only stays alive
As long as the donkey is able
And willing to give it a ride.

It turns out that dear Brother Donkey,
By no means my enemy
But faithful companion and servant,
Will soon be the death of me.


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