In my youth group days, we had a skit we would perform in which someone portraying Jesus would follow the protagonist around wherever he went, silently accompanying him throughout his daily routine. Jesus would sit invisibly beside him in class, walk with him through the halls, and even go out with him on dates (creepy), but he’d never say a word. He just stood there, watching.
The point of the skit was to drive home that Jesus is there all the time, even when you don’t see him. At one point in the vignette the main character would say something desperate about the absence of God, and Jesus would just look at him with sad eyes, wordlessly imploring him to notice and acknowledge his presence. In retrospect it was pretty pitiful, and for some I’m sure it had the opposite effect from what was intended.
The funny thing is I’m beginning to think there IS someone with me all the time, silently accompanying me everywhere I go and trying to warn me against this or encourage me about that. But it’s not Jesus.
It’s actually me. Or more precisely, it’s my body—my physical self. My body has been talking to me my whole life—without using words—but I was taught to ignore it and even look down upon it. I’m starting to think I would do myself a huge favor if I could start relating to my own body as if it were—I mean as if he were—another person, a lifelong friend whose input I desperately need.
That’s weird, right? Yeah, I know it is. But hold on a second…I spent more than three decades relating to an invisible person—three of them, actually—as if they were real when really they weren’t. It turns out I was talking to myself the whole time. So maybe this isn’t as radical an idea as you’d think.
Do you remember that still, small voice the church taught you to believe was God talking to you? I think that’s actually you, and the chances are good the message is coming from somewhere inside your own body. It has been talking to you your entire life whether you’ve been hearing it or not, and it’s high time you learned to recognize it. Your body is like a friend you’ve been ignoring who knows you and knows what you’ve been through—and what you need—better than anyone else alive.
There have been moments when I’ve been still enough and reflective enough to feel like someone is there, and I have no question it is actually me—or at least a part of me that I’ve been neglecting for my whole life. People have said for centuries that you should “listen to your gut” because your instincts often register in precisely that location. Maybe that’s why so many ancient people located the soul in the intestines.
Maybe it’s tension in your shoulders or your face, or a pain in your abdomen you’ve taught yourself to ignore. Maybe you’re holding your breath all the time, or clenching your fists, or maybe even your toes inside your shoes. Perhaps you are grinding your teeth, or pretending your heart rate isn’t getting elevated around certain people or situations. Oftentimes the messages your own body language sends you are so subtle they’re nearly undetectable, like a whisper. But whether you hear it or not, your body is telling you things all the time. Do you try to listen?
Growing up Christian you learn a very negative view of the self and of the body, although the church will never own up to it. If you are ever lost in the woods and you want to be rescued, all you have to do is say something disparaging about the Christian view of the body and people will appear out of nowhere to tell you how wrong you are. It’s still true, though—dualism is woven into the very fabric of the faith, no matter how hard they try to argue that it isn’t. That’s why the church’s take on sex is always so…cringey.
C.S. Lewis reminds us that St. Francis of Assisi referred to his own body as “Brother Ass.” Lewis argued that comparing our bodies to a donkey isn’t really being negative about it, but I find that pretty unconvincing (we’re also told Francis would throw himself into thorn bushes to curb his bodily appetites). No one would take it as a compliment to be told they’re like a donkey. The whole point of the analogy is to reinforce that your body is only there to be your beast of burden. It is never supposed to choose for itself which way to go—its proper function is to follow orders—and it is famously bad at doing so.
Would you talk this way about a good friend? Okay, some of you probably would because teasing is how you show affection. But my point still stands: This isn’t a positive view of the body, and it prevents any leveling of the playing field in which your body gets input into the decisions you make.
The Apostle Paul talked negatively of the body as well. He kept speaking as if his bodily existence were something he was eager to escape, and in one place he even disclosed that he “pummeled” his body in order to keep it in subjection to his mind and spirit. In Catholicism they still practice self-flagellation as a spiritual discipline, and upon the death of Pope John Paul II we learned that he kept up this practice all the way to the end. No matter how vehemently Christians of every stripe protest that their view of the body is a positive one, everything they do, say, and sing makes it clear that they are living in denial about this.
This intrinsic discomfort with our physical existence stems naturally from Christianity’s insistence that we are not at home in this world. It’s there in almost every poem, every worship song, and in much of the Bible itself. The Christian faith teaches its adherents to view themselves as pilgrims on a journey through this life into another one, the one that really matters.
A few years back, the Christian rock band Building 429 had a song that was Billboard‘s Christian Song of the Year that said:
All I know is I’m not home yet
This is not where I belong
Take this world and give me Jesus
This is not where I belong
Visit any evangelical church and listen to the way people talk, listening especially to the words they sing. It’s all about escaping this reality into something else, a second reality they have been promised is real, and is waiting for them.
Since leaving the faith nearly a decade ago, my life has largely been about unlearning this escapism, this disdain for the body, and learning to embrace who I am, and I mean all of me.The reality is that I don’t have a body, I am a body.
Do you see the difference? One way sees me as a soul trapped inside a shell while the other says that “shell” is me…it’s not something I will ever get away from. My body is me, not an accessory to me like a coat than can be discarded when I am through with it. The ultimate goal here isn’t to escape our bodies, but to learn to live in this world in the most fulfilling way that we can because it is the only one we can really know exists.
We have got to learn to undo this disdain for the body, and what makes it so difficult is that there are plenty of other factors compounding the problem.
Humans don’t actually need any help hating their bodies because the shortcomings are already in plain sight. The aging process alone weakens and tears down our bodies even as our minds grow stronger and our understanding of the world matures. Like the man on the porch said in It’s a Wonderful Life, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people.”
In fact, entropy is woven into the fabric of the whole universe, and not even the upward march of evolution can stop it. We seem to be in a transitional phase of hominid development, and we’re stuck dealing with the beta versions of whatever it is we are going to become after all the bugs and kinks get worked out. Given the cruel callousness of natural selection, I suppose it’s not even guaranteed that our species will ever overcome our current “design flaws.” Maybe that’s part of why we invented religions in the first place—to transcend our own weaknesses, giving us hope for an escape.
A strong argument could be made that technology is replacing religion as a more effective and more rewarding way to escape the limits of our bodily existence.
CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT how the things we have invented separate us from the natural rhythms of life: We’ve learned to control the climate inside our living spaces so that seasons disappear indoors and every day can feel the same. We’ve generated electricity and invented the light bulb so that all hours of the day can look and feel exactly the same as well. After the distinction between day and night disappears, we can work around the clock if we choose, disrupting our sleep cycles and ultimately damaging our mental and physical health.
I probably have a lit screen in front of my face for enough hours each day to call it an addiction, and I don’t mind admitting it’s at least partially because it’s a means of escaping the things I dislike about my life. My current job is incredibly difficult, and my geographical surroundings no longer fit me the way they did when I was young. Social media gives me a way to stay connected to people who understand me far better than anyone I can see without the aid of a computer screen, but that even further disconnects me from my physical location. All the people I want to see live somewhere else.
All this to say, Christianity isn’t the only thing that’s pushing us to dissociate from our own bodies. But we still need to fight that impulse as much as we can. If we keep tuning ourselves out all the time—ignoring our bodies to the detriment of our health—we will only be causing more damage to ourselves.
Okay, enough about the problem. What can we do?
Showing Yourself Compassion
Much has been written lately about the importance of “self-care,” and I think that’s a step in the right direction. We Americans in particular have been trained to work ourselves to death, leaving little time for rest and relaxation.
But self-care isn’t necessarily the same thing as self-indulgence. As someone aptly put it, it’s not just about salt baths and chocolate cake. Taking care of yourself often means doing things you don’t want to do, but need to do anyway. Sometimes it means putting away your screen and turning off the lights to get to bed at a good hour. It probably means adding some kind of physical activity to your day to help keep your body and your brain in functioning shape.
Lasting happiness and delayed gratification go hand-in-hand, so a good bit of self-discipline and self-regulation will go a long way toward achieving your goals. Which reminds me…goals are a really good thing to have as well. Remember having those? Maybe back when you felt you had more control over what happens to you in your day-to-day life?
Granted, we don’t ever get as much freedom or control as we would like. And for many of us, our bodies are limited in ways that tinge this entire topic with a bitter taste. Some of us have really good reasons for wanting to escape our physical selves. But we’re still stuck with our bodies whether we like them or not, and it behooves us to make the most out of the one life we know we get.
Historically speaking, religions have always been good about establishing rhythms and routines around which we can structure our lives, and I don’t see why non-religious folks shouldn’t be able to do the same. We would do well to find ways to mark the passing of seasons and years, the milestones of lifespan development, and even to structure each day and week according to the goals that best balance what we want out of our lives with what they want out of us.
If we could learn to see our bodies—our physical selves—as our best friends, we would open ourselves up to invaluable input from the one person who knows us better than anyone: ourselves. Our bodies know what we need at times when the rest of us cannot figure out what to do next. Which isn’t to say our bodies know everything, or that we should never choose to do things our bodies dislike.
But loving yourself in this way teaches you to recognize genuine care so that you’ll be in a better position to reject abuse and mistreatment the next time they are offered, and you’ll eventually be able to help others see the difference as well.
Related: “Learning to Feel at Home in Our Own Skin“
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
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