Unlike most modern human beings, I possess a relentless caution toward the human body. Not because I find it weak, but rather because of how powerful it is. We are, you see, thoroughly embodied. There is a depth there that most of us are too terrified to explore. Perhaps only God, the Incarnate God, has really descended those depths.
My caution toward the body is at best a mix of reverence and fear. I am not about to pretend to be an amazing, perfect, well-adjusted human being just so that I can impress the faceless Internet. I am a collection of vice and virtue, so I have a certain sympathy for the problem at hand – the problem of how we see our bodies in damaged ways – though sympathy does not mean acceptance. In any case, a recent blog post that I read inspired me to reflect on the “problem,” if you will, of the human body.
Most moderns are not at all reverent toward the body, despite their worship of sex and food and what have you, and they seek all kinds of unnatural avenues to shape the body according to their will. Drugs, surgery, contraceptives, dieting. This is no better than abjectly fearing the body. Either attitude, fear or instrumentalization, results in a sort of Gnosticism, a disgust at material things: too much fear ends in loathing; too much tyrannical self-shaping ends in derision. Both options treat the body as a nuisance – either one to be controlled, or one to be hated, and the lines between those impulses blurs.
The better answer is, of course, love – but not self-interest. That is, if it is possible for me to distinguish between self-care and self-obsession, then we must seek the former and avoid the latter.
So let me now tell you a story about how I learned something like this. I am hopeful there is some lesson in it, though imperfect.
I used to play all kinds of sports. Then I got extremely sick, and I didn’t. It is hard to describe what the journey from extremely athletic to useless was like, so I will only say that it was neither fun nor confidence-inducing. Aware of how much I had lost the muscle memory, the skills, the strength, the speed, I began to avoid sports. I did not want to be confronted with my loss. Was that an act of cowardice? Yes, yes it was. Am I to be loathed for being a coward? I don’t think so – most of us are cowards about exercise.
In any case, after many years, I began to exercise. It was awful at first. There was no reward at all save the remote intellectual comprehension that this was good for me. I was exhausted, sore, and pitiful. 13-year-old me could kick adult me across the room. But slowly, surely, I began to improve. I started to feel good after a workout instead of simply miserable. The human body is amazing: it is profoundly adaptable to what we do every day. Mine was starting to adapt.
Then I started learning Krav Maga. Coordinated movement is entirely different than running around in circles or lifting weights. Not only does it employ different muscle groups, but it also requires a hell of a lot more physical ability. Which means, of course, that I was terrible. If starting to work out was a kind of necessary humiliation, then learning a sport again was a second necessary humiliation. With a mind full of memories when I could watch my friends do something once and then imitate them effortlessly, of memories when I desired to do exactly-that and my body would follow instantateously, it was deeply painful to be unable to command my limbs anymore, unable to learn new skills with ease.
Now, I am making it seem a bit as if my body were one thing and “I” were another. This is not the case, and I do not walk around imagining a deep bifurcation between the two. But when I was first learning to really move again, the sensation is impossible to describe except to say that I imagined doing one thing and my muscles did another. It was nearly as if I had two contrary wills. And this divided frustration is precisely what exercise – or, I should say, sports and not “mere” exercise – helps to resolve. It was as if my brain started to reconnect nerves to the various sinews of my body. I became more whole. That was the sensation, anyway, though of course I was a fully embodied person beforehand. It can be described, I think, as a movement toward more authentic embodiment.
I can now pick up new movements with much more ease. I can adjust to details. I am patient with myself. All of which was the result of my first two humiliations – or, as I prefer, my penances – and sticking through them. Penance, good penance, is for the sake of health and not against it.
I learned, and continue to learn, how to effectively move. How to trust my whole self. How to be disciplined, which means refusing some things and working toward others. And this physical discipline translates into a mental discipline, so that even my intellectual work is accomplished more effectively. Or again, I have the discipline to be more morally aware. Or yet again, I have the discipline to pray.
Does this make me suddenly into a touchy-feely person, fully in touch with rampant bodiliness? Not really, no. But in any case, my opinion of the body is less one of cowardly fear and more one of reverence.
I am hopeful that reverence is a good word for the attitude we should have toward our bodies.