The human in the room

I’ve fainted three times in my life. 

The first time was when I had my blood drawn. I was in seventh grade. In the elevator on the way out, my dad pressed the button for the first floor. The elevator went down and so did I. 

The second time, a few years ago, I fainted in a hospital room while watching my grandma undergo surgery. White static swallowed my peripheral vision, and I wondered idly if I should be concerned. Then I was lying on the floor, looking up into my grandma’s face. “Are you hurt?” she asked. Had been asking, over and over. I’m fine, I said. The surgeon asked me to leave the room. I got up and walked out.

The third time, this past summer, I fainted while I was shadowing an anesthesiologist. While I was unconscious, I dreamed that I was shadowing an anesthesiologist. I dreamed of walking to the hospital, standing in an operating room for the first time and peeking into different procedures, amazed by everyone’s kindness and continuously in awe of the work that the anesthesiologists, nurses and surgeons were doing. Then I woke up. Sitting in a chair, in the operating room hallway, three doctors and nurses looking at me. Maybe dreams do come true?

Fainting in reaction to triggering stimuli starts when your vagus nerve decides that the perfect time to catch some z’s is right now, immediately. Your heart slows, your blood vessels widen, and the combined drop in blood pressure and slow heart rate restricts blood flow to the brain. Voilà — unconsciousness. 

And then comes the interesting part: How are you treated after? As a thing, or as an equal? As a biological reality, or as a person who is — like all people — partially a physical body affected by physical laws?

The best explanation for fainting at the sight of blood or needles is that prehistorically, it was beneficial to play dead when someone came to attack you, provided you weren’t out on the field fighting for your life. Instead of being killed, you might be spared and captured. In support of this Paleolithic-threat hypothesis, an epidemiological study found that “blood-injection-injury phobia” disproportionately affects women and children compared to men — another instance of a non-consensual biological reality.

Thus, fainting is the act of involuntarily turning oneself into a thing in order to protect oneself from harm. It is to come to resemble, most of all, a patient under anesthesia in the next room over, separated only by a wall — an object upon which forces act.

And the fact that I am determined by biological processes that I have no control over feels disquieting. After all, Descartes said “I think, therefore I am,” not “I involuntarily faint without conscious decision, therefore I am.” I very much would like to believe that I have the freedom to do what I want without my body messing with me. Intuitively, I am not a thing. Yet, my body is a thing, and I live in my body. I am bound by its physical limits, even if these limits don’t often appear to me — it is customary to sleep every night, to eat meals and to drink water, and I have acclimated to these limitations.

But then a body is opened, tubes are inserted, and I realize again with vertigo that we are indeed physical things.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in death, when a loved one dies and you realize again and again that they simply don’t physically exist anymore. In the year after my grandma’s death, I was prepared to miss her. Indeed, I did think of her, I did put up pictures of her on my dorm wall and I did feel sad that I would never see her again. But I was not prepared to feel sad out of the blue, to cry at movies without feeling especially moved and to wake up in bed in the morning and numbly wonder what would happen if I just didn’t get up at all: If I could just exist there until the end of time — sprawled out like a starfish — and watch life pass by on fast-forward. It sounds stupid, but I didn’t recognize that this random sadness was connected to grief. I expected to think about my grandma and then grieve her absence, not to randomly feel sad while getting dinner from West Union or walking to class. There was no conscious association. Therefore, I reasoned, my random sadness couldn’t be grief.

Yet it was grief. It was a kind of grief in response to which I could only give myself grace. College can feel like a force in and of itself: there’s so much to learn and do and explore. It can be tempting to ignore or stretch your physical limits in order to do everything. But the truth is that we do have physical limits. It’s okay to take a break if you’re burnt out. It’s okay to do less if you’ve been feeling awful. It’s okay to admit that something you’re doing isn’t working and needs to be changed, even if that change seems frightening at first. Being realistic about your limits does not signify shame, but rather indicates self-respect.

There are parts of us that cannot be overwritten (like fainting), just like there are parts of us that we choose (like shadowing an anesthesiologist and then subsequently fainting). Of course, people learn and fail and grow. It’s true that you can change yourself to some extent. But there’s no reason for anyone, including you, to treat you only as what you can’t control. 

The human in the room is that people must be acknowledged that they are people at the same time that the part of us that is a thing needs to be acknowledged as it is, without condescension or omission, but with infinite care.

Author's Note: This piece is inspired by Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force.” I have borrowed the idea of a “thing” and remain blissfully unaware of any and all philosophical atrocities committed  with this definition and usage. 

Jess Jiang is a Trinity senior. Their column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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