I Am A Rock, I Am An Island; I Am You


I know that it’s silly to anthropomorphize an erythrocyte – a red blood cell – because it is simply a sack of protein [hemoglobin]. But, I do. I picture it swimming its way through the body.

First, it’s ejected at high velocity from the left heart:

‘Heeeeeyyyyy … woah, excuse me, wow, excuse me, here I go … outta my way!”

That lovely little red blood cell is flying down the aorta towards everything. He can go anywhere – any route – through smaller and smaller blood vessels until it conforms and forms and deforms into straight lines – an orderly queue – through … pick your organ.

So he then finds his way through the smallest capillaries – the narrow tubes that enclose the path of our little hero – relentlessly, namelessly, chivalrously delivering oxygen to: the cells that make your urine, the cells that keep your skin young and taught, the cells that fire electrical pulses and allow you to open your laptop and read these words, the cells that allow you to slurp your soup and make ironic comments.

But I’m a pulmonologist, so I’m most intrigued when our little hero finds his way into the smallest air sacs of our lungs – the alveoli. This is where, in single file, he is intimate with air, where he exchanges gas; and I wonder. Does he ever look up? Does he ever get lost in an expanse above him and feel like the bottom of his existence has dropped away? Even when there are countless other erythrocytes scurrying about him, does he feel as I do when I meander through Grand Central Station? When I look up and feel lost in the blue-green, constellation-ridden dome above me? When I am surrounded by innumerable bodies rushing to hop onto the Metro North and become ejected at high velocity into Connecticut and Westchester?

I recently read an article on NPR that changed my perspective on morality just a little. For the longest time, I didn’t really understand the whole Kantian, deontological argument; that is, in the world there is absolute right and wrong. I was more of a utilitarian; I felt that if the ends were net positive, then the means could be justified. But a neuroscientist posed a fascinating hypothetical argument: that the concept of ‘me’ versus ‘you’ versus ‘this or that’ is actually not so definite. In fact, he argued, ‘me’ is entirely a cognitive construct of your own making. He imagined a situation where one has an exact, molecular twin – not a genetic, identical twin – but a completely, perfect replication of you where this copy has had all of your thoughts, feelings, memories, hopes and desires. Every protein, every electron, every ion is a complete copy of you!

And then someone puts a gun to your head. Are you afraid – knowing that you [your molecular copy] will continue to live? If you answer ‘yes’ then this is evidence that ‘me’ or ‘I’ is actually just a product of your brain. You should not be afraid – ‘you’ will continue to live. And if this is true, then ‘me’ versus ‘you’ and ‘this’ versus ‘that’ starts to crumble … boundaries become somewhat artificial, somewhat arbitrary. If this is the case, then we are all each other and we should all follow the Golden Rule … no matter what.

So when I leave my apartment and I eject myself at high velocity through the capillaries of Manhattan:

“Outta my way!”

The city becomes my body and I can go anywhere! I fly through its nervous system, its innards, its heart and its lungs. I pinch my nose in its subways, my neurons fire in its museums, my heart races in its cafes, I hold my breath when I pass through Grand Central Station – I look up and the floor gives way – I am lost; I am a small part of this fantastic organism that has been the creator and purveyor of incomparable creation – art, science, humanity. I am relentlessly, namelessly and – sometimes – chivalrously sustaining this city’s existence. And the boundaries between me and it and everyone else is somewhat blurred.

I am, after all, simply a sack of protein.

For more of Jon-Emile Kenny, check out his website, heart-lung.org, and on Twitter, @heart_lung