I grew up with conflicting messages regarding the meaning of my life, my body, and human relationships. According to my teachers and other champions of moral uprightness, life was a constant battle between the ways of “society” and the ways of being a good person who is true to him or herself and who cares about others.
The elusive boogeyman known as “society” wants us to think that in order to be happy, we need a successful job, nice clothes, a good body, lots of friends, and expensive material possessions. But a really happy person doesn’t need any of those superficial things. All they need is to be themselves, follow their hearts, be kind to others, and embrace their inner beauty.
We sucked this all up in elementary school, regurgitating these ideals through poetry, songs, and performances in our school plays. As I grew up, I wondered why so many people continued to chase after the “ways of society.” Why didn’t those pithy moral messages stick? And why are the people who don’t follow the ways of society often so miserable? Sure, on the surface, they boast about how fake society is and how proud they are of being authentic and altruistic…all the while feeling a sense of jealousy and self-hatred when scrolling upon some glamorous person’s Instagram account or watching the lives of the rich and famous on TV.
I was caught somewhere in the middle. I wanted to be like all those morally upstanding people who didn’t care about vanities. But at the same time, I couldn’t deny my attraction to lifestyles of celebrities, to the popular kids in my class, and to living, as Sheila E would say, “the glamorous life.” I constantly thought about ways to boost my popularity on social media. I fixated on what I wore and how I could make my body more attractive. As I would take selfies, stare at my body in the mirror, and obsessively build up my Facebook profile, echoes of my teachers saying “it’s who you are on the inside that counts” ran through my mind. I knew all of this stuff was superficial and wouldn’t last…but why couldn’t I stop thinking about it? No matter how many times I told myself that body image and my facebook friend count didn’t matter, I couldn’t seem to convince myself.
At a certain point, I started to realize that something was missing from this dichotomy. No one actually taught me to question why people are attracted to “society’s” ways. Why do we want to be rich? Why do we want a glamorous lifestyle, full of pleasure, possessions, and affirmation from others? And why, ultimately, is embracing our inner goodness and beauty not enough to satisfy our sense of self-worth? Apparently we were supposed to condemn those things in themselves, as if there were no seeds of truth within them.
This changed after I came across the book God at The Ritz by Lorenzo Albacete. In a chapter on sexual desire, Albacete remembers the time a woman asked him if “the resurrection of the body was a metaphor.” “My immediate reaction to the question was to think about — and to notice and feel — my own body, which could be diplomatically said to have reached threatening dimensions.” Albacete was rather heavy, to say the least. “When I try to get up in the morning, I discover parts of my body (because they hurt) that I didn’t even know were there. So in response to this question about resurrection-of-the-body as metaphor, I replied, ‘My experience of the body is not the experience of a metaphor. The day this baby becomes a metaphor, I’ll be better equipped to answer your question.’”Albacete was never at a loss for witty responses to serious theological questions. He continues by reflecting on his experiences in southern California, where
“you see many bodies that make you think of the resurrection as a worthwhile thing, as a metaphor for their beauty and attraction…What my heart wants, is the real possibility of having a body like those who at that very moment could be seen around the pool during the shooting of an episode of some television series. I have no idea what my risen body might be like, but if such a thing does exist, I want it to be closer to the bodies at the pool than to a metaphor.”
His words challenged the dichotomy I was raised with. Isn’t real beauty emotional, spiritual, internal? Why was this priest fixating on the beauty of the perfect beach body and hating on the imperfections of his own? Doesn’t he know that being a good person is all that matters?
Apparently not. I had always equated the message of Jesus with those of my teachers. He, like them, wanted people to be good, kind, and true to themselves. But compared to the real Jesus–the one who was both God and human, whose bloody death and sacrifice of his body was the means through which he promised eternal fulfillment to all of humanity–this moralistic Jesus was a wimp. He had nothing really interesting to offer.
The more I found myself attracted to the beauty, the mystery, and the strength of the real Jesus, whose presence I began to see emerging through my friendships and liturgical experiences within the Catholic Church, I started to understand the gaping hole in the dichotomy presented to me during my childhood.
Our bodies matter. Desire matters. Material objects, our impulse to possess things and people, and the flesh are unavoidable realities from which we will never be able to disentangle ourselves. Verbally eschewing vanity, consumerism, and the superficialness of celebrity culture will not eliminate our attraction toward it.
Additionally, we cannot make ourselves good by our own effort. Nor can we get rid of our desires. This epic anthropological miscalculation was the downfall of the gnostics, and yet it continues to surface today (as Pope Francis notes in Gaudete et Exsultate). Either this attraction toward consumption, beauty, and the flesh will be taken over by the logic of utility and consumerism or by the logic of communion and self-gift. Mere good-will and attempts to make ourselves moral won’t cut it.
If we don’t face the reality of our nature, our impulses and desires, we will only be able to make ourselves appear “moral” (that is–authentic, caring, altruistic) on the surface, while the logic of consumerism and utility permeates our lifestyle, our view of others, and the way we live. No amount of virtue signaling will be able to change this.
Instead of attempting to eliminate that never-ceasing desire to consume and to experience the flesh and all of material reality in a full way, we have to ask, what will channel it toward something that is good? We have to consume something. We need to chase after beauty. The question is what kind, and where can we find it?
Stay tuned for part 2.