The lessons we can learn from our skin

March 15, 2022

Bioengineers use the word compliancy to describe a material’s capacity to mold to the shape of another surface, and human skin exhibits this quality remarkably well. While trying to design shoes and tools for the insensitive feet and hands of leprosy patients, I have spent hundreds of hours studying the anatomy of living skin. Underneath the skin in the palm of the hand lie globules of fat with the look and consistency of tapioca pudding. So soft as to be almost fluid, fat globules cannot hold their own shape, and so they are surrounded by interwoven fibrils of collagen, like balloons caught in a rope net.

I grasp a hammer in the palm of my hand. Each cluster of fat cells changes its shape in response to the pressure. It yields, yet cannot be pushed aside because of the firm collagen fibers around it. The resulting tissue, constantly shifting and quivering, becomes compliant, fitting its shape and its stress points to the precise shape of the handle of the hammer.

Engineers nearly shout in awe when they analyze this amazing property, for they cannot design a material that so perfectly balances strength and pliability.

If my skin tissue were tougher, I might insensitively crush a goblet of fine crystal as I hold it in my hand; if softer, it would not allow a firm grip. When my hand surrounds an object – a ripe tomato, a hiking pole, a kitten, another hand – the fat and collagen redistribute themselves and assume a shape to comply with the object being grasped. This response spreads the area of contact, which prevents localized spots of high pressure.

In contrast, I have taken the hand of a human skeleton and wrapped it around a hammer.

Against such a hard surface, the hammer handle will contact only about four pressure points. Without any compliant skin and its supporting tissues, those four pressure points would inflame and ulcerate after a few hammer blows. Because of compliancy, my entire skin-covered hand will absorb the impact.

Compliancy, a word with special meaning to my engineering colleagues, is a meaningful word for both the physical body and the spiritual Body. Compliant tissues covering my bones assume the shape – awkward or smooth – of whatever I am grasping. I do not demand that the object fit the shape of my hand; my hand adapts, distributing the pressure.

The art of Christian living, I believe, can be glimpsed in this concept of compliancy.

As my shape moves into contact with other, foreign shapes, how does my skin respond? Whose personality adapts? Do I, as does my grasping hand, becomes square to those things that are square, round to those things that are round?

It troubles me that Christians sometimes have a reputation for being divisive and exclusive. Though we live among others who may not share our beliefs and values, we have the clear example of Jesus, who found acceptance among physical and moral outcasts as well as despised minorities and Roman offices. Somehow He moved compliantly among diverse groups without compromising His good-news message of love and forgiveness.

The apostle Paul completes the analogy for us in 1 Corinthians 9, as paraphrased in The Message:

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized – whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ – but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view.

-Dr. Paul Brand, Fearfully and Wonderfully

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