Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Body and Soul

We have been acculturated to think of our physical forms as separate from our fundamental nature. Religion does it by talking about the body as a glove that a hand representing our soul fills. Makeover shows tout altering the outside to match the inside. Expressions like, "she's pretty on the inside" litter our speech. We have co-opted the meaning of 'inside' to be something spiritual as opposed to the literal blood and bone.

I used to consider my body to be a distinct and separate entity from myself, hideous and deformed whereas I was smart and shy. (This is known as making the body other.) Although intended to be comforting, being told "It's what's on the inside that matters" simply strengthened my perception of the physical form I inhabited as unsightly and deepened the chasm that detached me from it. There is no way to know for certain, but I suspect all the surgery provided further reasons to consider body as other. If nothing else, I could keep the physical experience and resulting pain at bay by allowing it to happen to something that was not me.

AS a coping strategy, dichotomizing myself into "me" and "that body" served the purpose of getting me through choppy waters. In college and afterward, I did the necessary work to first like then inhabit my own skin. Now my physical form is a natural extension of me and I can no more think of my body as another entity than I can separate my heart and soul. It's all one giant work in progress.

Today, when I encounter that which implies the body is other, I become somewhat annoyed. Unfortunately, this duality is everywhere. "He's an oreo" is used to denote a black person (outside) who behaves like a white person (inside). The expression "the mind is willing but the flesh weak" is used to remove us from the equation of blame for what are bodies cannot do. We say, "she is young at heart" or "he's five going on twenty-five."

All the examples I have given share one commonality: the impression engendered by the physical form is not in sync with the perception of the inhabiting spirit. I would have no objections to this if I could find adequate evidence to prove that it is equally likely to happen when the inside fails to live up to the outside. Of the examples I've given, only 'oreo' could be considered a negative assessment of the self. Sometimes people talk of somebody being a pretty package with nothing underneath. Mostly, though, splitting the two is reserved for times when the tangible fails to meet a subjective standard. Often society defines this standard by how it assesses a physical form. The external must be ugly, old, or otherwise fall short of the mark, then it is compared with the perception of the physical form such that a ugly body with a nice inhabitant becomes somebody who is "pretty on the inside."

When this segregation is a commonplace way of thinking, it becomes simple for an individual to consider their flesh as distinct from themselves – the body as other.. Once the physical form is a separate entity, it is easier to hate it, find it unsightly, or blame it for shortcomings.

As mentioned, I think this segregation of body and spirit is detrimental to human beings. Central to my objections is the standards used to judge the physical form. Who defines attractive? Who said old was a bad thing? Why do we feel a need to explicitly identify our bodies as the source of a shortcoming? It's all about societally-defined standards and I tend to dislike them on principle. No entity, whether person government, or 'society,' should dictate what I think or by extension the criteria by which I judge.

Take a moment and consider how you think about your own body. In your mind, are you one thing and it another? Is the dislike you may have of your physical form keeping that form separate from that which you perceive as yourself? Do you look in a mirror and know the reflection to not be a representation of yourself? Have you said something like, "The mind is willing but the flesh weak" instead of simply saying, "I wish I could, but I'm too tired"?

I believe, from long personal experience, that the nature of the relationship we have constructed between body and self directly impacts our body image. In a world where more than half the women hate their own bodies, I deem it high time we start consciously finding healthier ways to think about the body that carries us through this life. Until we shed it at death, it is the only one we have and liking it will make the journey more pleasurable.

5 comments:

Steve said...

The phrase "Don't judge a book by its cover." warns against removal of the inside/outside dichotomy in a neutral way, and warns about it in both directions. Someone beautiful can be evil, and someone monstrous can be good.

When I was growing up, I recall reading many children's books that dealt with that. One Berenstein Bears book (in the context of teaching appropriate behavior around strangers) had Mother Bear cutting open a seriously warped apple to show Sister Bear that it was perfectly good to eat, and then cutting another properly shaped apple to show her that it was full of worms.

I think that you might have integrated your inside and outside, but most people haven't. It's perhaps this communal lack of integration that causes societally defined perceptions.

As for the inside failing to live up to the outside, consider most any celebrity. They are perfect. They are the ones society worships and will do anything to emulate. They are the demigods and demigoddesses of this modern age. Their inner lives are so warped and out of whack that they have explosively messy divorces, frequently will fall into addiction, and sometimes die quite early compared to the average lifespan.

I have a rather interesting relationship with my inside versus my outside. It's not something I care to reveal to the public. Ask me about it next time you see me.

Jen said...

Steve,
I think the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" illustrates the fact that we do separate inside and outside. Not sure if that was your point or not.

I don't remember those sorts of kids books, but we are different enough in age that it might explain things. I'm off to find the Berenstein Bears stranger book on Amazon. Perfect for my niece.

As for celebrities. It seems to me that, if we actually acknowledged the outside might be pretty but the inside is rotten, we would not continually be shocked by that which reveals the craziness within. We keep expecting them to be as perfect as they look. When they are human, we get all upset. While you and I might see their lives as messed up, I'm not sure most people hold that belief.

Mike Croghan said...

Hi Jen,

Somehow I missed this post until now. I love it, and agree 100%. I think this body/soul dualism accounts for any number of ills in our society. Thanks for nothing, Plato. (Actually, I blame it more on his later followers, the neo-Platonists, whose thought was very influential during Christendom's formative centuries. But I digress.)

You might find it interesting that, as far as the scholars I consider credible can tell, the original teaching of Christianity was *not* that we shed our body when we die, and our soul flies off to heaven (or hell). The original teaching was that we are one being, body and spirit - and when we die, we die, just as Jesus did. The original Christian hope is of a future resurrection of body *and* spirit - again, one integrated being, not dualistically segregated. And the home of that resurrected being will be a new heaven and new earth, brought together as one - a physical reality, not a spiritual heaven. (And resurrected bodies will not be exactly like the beings we are now, either - hence Jesus wasn't recognized by his closest friend post-resurrection.)

This isn't the opinion of some fringe people - my main source for it is N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, England and widely-respected New Testament scholar - respected by religious liberals and evangelicals alike.

Anyway, just saying - the original Hebrew and Christian views of the self - not to mention those of many other cultures, such as Buddhist ones - are much more holistic than the dualistic neo-Platonic assumptions that we have been brought up to believe. Let's shrug that shit off, I say. *smile*

Peace,
Mike

Jen said...

Hey Mike,
That's fascinating. I came across a phrase a while back and maybe it refers to this -- the theology of embodiment?

So, how did we get from body and soul as one entity to the duality we see today? Plato came before Jesus, so was there, excuse the expression, a resurrection in his thinking after the time of Christ?

Mike Croghan said...

Yeah, that's exactly my understanding. What is referred to as "Hellenistic" culture (i.e., the "wider" Greek culture following Alexander the Great's conquest of much of that part of the world) re-discovered Plato in a big way, and as Hellenistic culture melded into Greco-Roman culture with the rise of the Roman Empire, that love affair with Plato continued to flourish. So Neo-Platonism was more or less a major Greco-Roman philosophical religion for many centuries, and it had cultural resonance far beyond its direct adherents, much as Christianity does in the US today.

This was the so-called "Greek" world into which missionaries like St. Paul brought the Christian Gospel, and this was the world in which Christianity went from a tiny, heavily persecuted fringe group to the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Along the way, the Christian message was accommodated to the dominant culture, as it has been every time it's encountered a new culture throughout history (depending on the degree of colonial arrogance of the missionaries, of course).

That accommodation to culture is not entirely a bad thing, and really, it's necessary - not everyone is a first-century Jew. But the result for our culture is (among other things) a deep-seated Neo-Platonic dualism.