I have an essay about bodies and incarnational faith in my head that has been percolating for months now, but it’s just going nowhere. I think this needs to be a conversation first before it can be an essay. So I’m going to throw out a list of things I’m thinking about, and if any of them resonates for you, leave me a comment won’t you? (I can’t tell you how much it makes my day when you all leave me comments!) Consider this a bunch of jumbled thoughts in search of a thesis and some organizing principle.
I have exactly no background in theology or philosophy, so I can’t and won’t try to talk with any authority about the so-called “mind-body dichotomy,” except to say that it seems to me to be alive and well, and I think that’s sort of a shame. Again, I have no idea what others have meant by “mind-body dichotomy,” but what I mean by it is this distinction we all seem to have between our “Selves” and our “bodies.” And how I hear this distinction play itself out in real life is that almost everyone is pretty critical of their bodies – no matter what kind of bodies they have (and see, there’s the distinction right there in the very language we use, this notion that we “have” a body, sort of like we “have” a light blue mini-van, or ratty brown dansko clogs, or a red clock in our kitchen; not that we “are” our bodies, but WE “have” them). Most of us think we’re a little too fat, or a lot too fat, or a little too skinny, or a lot too skinny; we don’t like the wrinkles here or the sags there, and our thighs are too lumpy or our hair is too frizzy or our boobs are too little or our butt is too big or or or … it’s pretty endless, isn’t it, the stream of judgment our Selves dish out to our bodies? And our bodies are just mute, everyone’s favorite whipping boy, the repository of so much shame and disappointment and judgment.
So sometimes I wonder what it would be like if the tables were turned, if the Selves just shut up for a minute, and let the bodies have a turn. I bet the bodies would have a thing or two to say to their Selves, don’t you think? I think most of the bodies that their Selves love to hate would be pretty damn pissed off at how ungrateful their Selves are. If you think about it, our bodies do a LOT of nice things for us … I just imagine them saying, “And all you can think about is how big your butt is? Really?” It just seems kind of petty, doesn’t it, in the face of everything else your body does for you?
Let’s make a list, shall we, of all the nice things our bodies do for our Selves. Be as specific as you can. I’ll start with a few thoughts. My body allows my Self to …
…hear Julie’s gorgeous descant floating above the congregation on Sunday mornings
…taste salt and vinegar potato chips and Three Philosophers beer
…walk on the beach, the waves roaring in my ears, the sun shining on the surf
…nurse a child, one I didn’t even give birth to
…run, sending endorphins to my brain and keeping my moody Self relatively happy
…lay hands on a dear friend and pray for healing in her life
How ‘bout you?
And, it turns out, even folks who have, by any objective standard, bodies that are simply exquisite, even they can’t get over themselves and just be grateful. I know this because my friend Jen, who is a dancer and a yogini and a Pilates instructor, tells me that her dance students and colleagues are often the most harsh critics she knows of their own bodies.
Jen and I do yoga together once a week in her beautiful apple green home studio, and I’ve never experienced yoga like I do with her. She approaches my body in yoga like an artist approaches a canvas – a serious artist, one who intends to create nothing short of a masterpiece; an artist who approaches her craft with both loving passion and exquisite technique, and so is both gentle and demanding, holistic and technical. That my body gets to be the medium of her art once a week feels like nothing short of a divine gift, and sometimes when I catch a glimpse of us in the mirror I gasp and say, “Oh my god, look at us! We’re so beautiful!” And Jen laughs in delight and tells me she’s going to take me to all her dance classes to give her dancers a pep talk, because they don’t so much see it.
And I have to just wonder, what’s up with that? I mean really. A couple of weeks ago, Trixie and I went to see Jen perform in the Fringe Festival, and I loved watching all the dancers, more than I ever have before, I think because I just forgot about wondering what it all “means” (which makes me feel stupid) and I just reveled in their bodies, which were so awesome, and moved in such gorgeous ways. There was one man in particular, whose body was different from many male dancers I’ve watched – he wasn’t built, his muscles weren’t round and pumped, in clothing you might even think he was just skinny, and not so strong. But when he danced, all his muscles showed themselves, long, strong lines stretching from joint to joint and moving him in the most beautiful lines imaginable. I was enthralled.
After the performance, Jen met me and Trixie for a cheese steak at Pat’s, which happened to be just a half a block away from the dance studio, and I grilled her: “Are you serious? Those dancers don’t understand that their bodies are near-perfect gifts? They don’t just walk through the world reveling all the time in how beautiful they are and in what their bodies can do? Really? I just don’t get it.”
I don’t know how I got so lucky (I like to give all the credit to my parents, who were pretty wonderful, but it may just be the way I’m wired), but I really love my body. And if you don’t know me in person, you should know that my body is pretty much just fine as a whole, and it has a few quite nice features, but it also has more than enough features that fall far short of any objective standard of “beautiful,” so if I wanted, I could be quite harshly critical. But for some reason, I’m just not. In fact, I seem to have the reverse of the body-image issues that plague so many folks who see their bodies as much less attractive than they really are. I generally feel much fitter and prettier than I probably am, in fact. Sometimes when I’m trying on clothes in the harsh light of a dressing room, I am startled and wonder, “Oh! Is that how I look to other folks? ‘Cause that’s sure not how I feel!” But then I just shrug and think, “Oh well, too bad for them if it is!”
I do try to take good care of my body, and I love it even more when it is strong and fit. But when I am doing things to make it so, like running or yoga, it’s not because I hate my body and want it to be different, but because I love my body and want to enjoy it even more. Even when my body has not been working so well – like when I struggled with infertility, and gained a lot of weight – even then, I’m pretty sure I didn’t hate my body so much as feel really alienated from it. The split felt pretty extreme. I felt much of the time like pure intellect and raw emotion, but pretty disembodied, and it took running a marathon and nursing Micah to connect everything back up. But even then, in my worst moments, I think my body’s self-image (and that’s interesting language, isn’t it?) was unrealistically positive, relatively speaking.
I count that as a blessing, by the way.
Now I know that there are many folks who have bodies that make life hard for them in very real ways. Their bodies keep them in chronic pain, or they don’t allow them the range of experiences they would like, or they are simply failing way too soon, or they are fundamentally wrong in some way, like they don’t match up with their Selves’ gender. I am trying to figure out how to be careful, and where folks like this fit into what I’m thinking. But it also seems to me, somewhat ironically, that those Selves who have the most legitimate complaints about their bodies are often the most loving and forgiving of their bodies, and the most grateful to them. That seems like something interesting to explore.
I have a vague notion that some of the blame for this mind-body dichotomy lies with our friend Paul (and/or sketchy interpretations of Paul), right? Except it’s possible that I’m just in over my head here. My friend Pierce, who was a Pauline scholar as an undergraduate, and with whom I went to law school, tried to give me a lesson on corporality in 1 and 2 Corinthians on Facebook, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to take a whole evening, face-to-face (i.e. our bodies actually in the same room), probably with beer … and good food … and of course a Bible. And even then I’m not so sure I’m gonna get it (and let’s face it, Pierce is way smarter than I am, and the only reason I did better in law school than he did is because I, being the total nerd that I am, never missed a class and briefed all my cases, whereas Pierce, being totally NOT a nerd, did not; and in the end it turns out maybe he was right because look who’s earning a living practicing law, and look who is doing neither!). But if any of you theologians want to take a stab at explaining what Paul had to say about bodies in the comments, I would be ever-so-grateful (or if you just want to make a date with me and Pierce for an evening discussion over beer and good food, leave your availability! I mean, how fun would that be?)
Okay, and since we’re talking about theology (where, I reiterate, I am in way over my head) … aren’t bodies sort of at the heart of being Christian? Isn’t incarnation and resurrection pretty central to our faith, for those of us who are Christians? Isn’t it the central scandal of Christianity, as Kathleen Norris says, that God “came to us and share our common lot” (in the words of the UCC statement of faith) … in the form of a fully human body we know as Jesus? So what’s up with Christians hating their bodies?
I’m not so good at praying, but the closest I sometimes feel I get is when I close my eyes and try to imagine Jesus as a real live person. I always imagine he is long and thin like that dancer I saw recently, the one whose muscles didn’t bulge but instead stretched in lines across his body that were as perfect as the lines his body in turn made in space as he danced. I imagine that Jesus had unruly hair, maybe even dreads, because who has time to groom on the road, right? And that his skin wasn’t as dark as Micah’s, but certainly darker than mine. And I wonder what he smelled like, because I’m sure it wasn’t deodorant or after-shave, and I wonder what it would feel like to hold his hands, and whether he snorted when he laughed. I would love to fix him a meal and watch him eat, because I bet he loved to eat, and I love to watch people who love to eat. And I wonder if his face got soft when he was listening to someone he loved, and I think he must have liked to touch people, and kiss them, and walk arm-in-arm.
I love communion, maybe because it’s as close as I feel like I get to the incarnate body of Christ as he lived in it; and I love all the messy, complicated relationships that make up church (and I like them in person better than email!), and I love worshipping and praying and working side-by-side, literally bodies touching, eating, singing, crying, laughing, sharing our stories, because that’s what makes me feel like part of the body of Christ, which is when resurrection feels most real to me.
See, I have no idea where this is going. So holla back!