I first wote this on tax day of 2009 on Facebook. My April 15, 2009 note was under the title “The Body: More Unavoidable than Death or Taxes”. This has not been changed or corrected.
My physical health this week has been pretty bad while not being too bad for me to write a Facebook Note. It is probably mostly because of this kind of physical illness that I am wrting about the body. My parents have each had some kind of cancer scare recently. I have no health insurance. A life time of adventures leaves my body mapped with scars and if I look around I can find lots of reasons to wonder how long my body will hold together. I worry too about others and take an interest both in sports and in many other forms of physical activity. So I am writing a rambling and incomplete note about the body.
Humanity and the human body have been discussed at very great length by a very great number of writers. I am writing this series of Facebook notes not so much becuase I am confident that my doing so will add greatly to the total dialog or body of knowledge but more because I must do all I can for reasons not always easy to explain. Although 44 is hardly ancient, I have reached a stopping place in a very long and arduous journey. This is drawing upon a year of writing these Facebook notes. About the time my birthday rolls around it will be a good time to have completed this series of My Thoughts about a good number of topics. In one year one can map out a good bit of one’s mental and spiritual landscape. My own journey through this year has been aided by writing these notes which have been more personal than anything else which I have treated as much like a publication.
One aspect of the human body which is among the most important I have addressed a bit in an earlier note adressing the subject of Manhood. I hope that I am soon able to address the subject of Womanhood in another note similarly devoted to the subject. It seems abundantly clear to me that among the most important things about the human body is that it comes in two types we call sexes which cut across or organize all other types very significantly. We call this pair of types the sexes. But in this note I am dealing with sexual differentiation only very incidentaly.
The human body is of course at the very personal level of things one can discuss. The problems and concerns of society are more removed from our most personal concerns and feelings. Life impinges upon us very distinctly when it is made physical. Most people, if they are honest even with themselves find rape a much more certain and definable crime than sexual harassment. They find battery more easily pictured and more likely to be fairly punished than “intentional infliction of emotional distress”. The fabulous wedding ceremony and public anouncement are all well and good but it is sexual intercourse that consumates a marriage in most societies. Sickness is recognized as an excuse for absence from work far more often than most excuses not involving bodily impairment. We live in an age of movies, the internet, telephones, faceless bureaucracies and corporations that deal with hundreds of millions of strangers and we still recognize how real things become when they affect our bodies. It seems very likely that people living through all of the many other human generations were far more tied to the significance of the body.
Any experienced proclaimer of the Christian faith knows that– while many Christians disagree on how to express what Christ was doing in the Crucifixion, why he was doing what he did and what it meant to God and Man– all are agreed that it is intrinsic and essential to the story that Jesus was in great physical pain and that he laid down his bodily life and was executed after being sentenced to death. Both death and a very physical suffering are essential to the redemptive mystery of Jesus Christ. Jesus who fed and healed so many bodies in the course of his ministry of teaching and preaching was subjected to the grim arts and sciences of those devoted to destroying bodily health and integrity. Had Jesus simply been humanely poisoned like Socrates then Christianity would be very different indeed. Perhaps it would be nearly unrecognizable.The horrific violence of his death and his ministry of peace and healing are so poetic a contrast that they can be somehow distorted and exagerated. We can and indeed have lost sight of the other violence on Jesus’s side of the picture and the violence of third parties. But the physical violence he suffered is indeed essential to the whole story.
Michel Foucault, who was among other things a French Philiospher and cultural critic of some note, has given us a number of books which show the bodily aspect of social and cultural development and of political history. One of his books “Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity” focuses on how sexual understandings of the person and the body create a set of connections between political power and sexuality. Two of the other books are “Discipline and Punish” and “Madness and Civilization”. Foucault takes care to show how power over bodies is a vital part of the development of all real power structures. I think that I am aware of my own body slipping away from its maximum and best capacities and uses in very many ways. I am just so very far from feeling good even at times when I do not feel bad. But I do relish the times and ways in which I do feel well. For me and for many of us the body provides a sort of counter which like an odometer in a car records the mileage put on the vehicle. On the other hand, like a counter to a space launch it counts down minutes of vitality. We may have fortunate times when we are not so aware of trhe aging process but mostly we are aware of it. Life gets harder and less comfortable and the potential for doing any good dimiishes. This is not everyone’s experience. Although all who survive age, not all perceive it the same way. “Life is hell” may be a sincere exclamation for many but certainly not all. If one is happy in other ways the small inconveniences of aging are not such serious detriments. If one is fully engaged then life seems to go on tolerably apace.
I am wrting part of this having no room that is an office of my own and lying across the bed in a room which has ankle braces, a variety of nonprescription medication, reading glasses and other things remind me of how much goes into the small and somewhat shabby production that is getting me into each day and through its list of demands. I am grateful for these helps and for the decent mattress which is better than some I have had over the years. I would love to live near a practically swimmable body of water every day (and if the water is right then swimming is more or less the only exercise I can do daily). But I do some walking on the days when my feet are not excessively swollen or otherwise out of form. Of course the more I am able to walk and do so the fewer times these feet are out of commission. With ear canals damaged by years of altitude changes, firearms, infections, loud music and loud cities I cannot swim in our fish pond. Only the salt seas and swimming pools will work for me.
I have felt a lot better than I do today. Today I am in a good amount of pain. When I can, I often take Gucosamine for my joints, saw palmetto for my prostate, at least one decongestant, sometimes cough syrup, aspirin and ibuprofen for pain, an herbal mix for weight loss, a coenzyme for cardio vascular health and a mutli-vitamin. This routine of pill taking joins with my ankle braces and reading glasses as a daily reminder of how much I am struggling to maintain what is not a great level of health and fitness in the first place. I have had years when I was in better condition and years when I was in worse condition. However, the function and development and idea of the human body have long been of interest to me. I am much better for the time I devoted to athletic and fitness pursuits. However, I am not even average in a variety of ways. working out for me has always been something that produced mixed results. One of the fascinating things about having some distinct physical limitations throughout one’s life is that one is able to the world through a separate lense.
I will probably mess up the classic formulation, but in China a scholar was expected to be able to play chess, master calligraphy, create brush drawings of hard to reach sites and master the martial arts. While such a classic Imperial formulation may have been cruel to those genuinely gifted in some areas but challenged in others it did produce a great deal of the beauty, balance and productivity of several of China’s golden ages. As with the Western Renaissance I think we need to re awaken those balanced forces as values. There have been times when I at least approached these ideals — perversely as I write this bit of advocacy I am very far from such wholeness. My body is on the whole a bit run down and it has never met everyone’s standards although it has proiven satisfactory to me and many others on many occasions and in various measures.
When Jesus healed people it is mentioned sevderal times that those around him asked whether the person was sick or injured because of the injured person’s own sin or because of the sin of their parents. It seems to have been one of Jesus’s principal preoccupations as a teacher to distinguish physical infirmity from moral turpitude. Jesus’s own stance and examle is scandalous at times to a world which in so many ways is medically defined and dominated. He did order people to receieve the certified medical examoinations, did encourage exercise, warmth and full stomachs for many who would not have had them. However, there is no doubt that the historical Jesus was aware and a bit defensive about the fact that in someways he encouraged lower standards of hygiene than other religious leaders in his tradition. Despite exigent circumstances this is the one part of his legacy where I in good conscience have found something to agree with in the claims and criticisms of his critics and even enemies. I believe Jesus brought a lot of clean order to a messy world but he also exposed many to meesy and filthy parts of the world they might otherwise have been able to avoid. Jesus was far beyond almost anyone else’s courage and engagement with the wastes of the world in many senses. He must be portrayed as someone who rejoiced in and understood the body. He lived a life in the world of feasts, the desert, the seashore, grain felds, capentry, fishing boats, The Great Temple, woman and children. His body was engaged in his life, work, thought and ministry. It was not by turning off the body and the brain that he would find his way to heaven and lead his flock to heaven. Rather he said to those living active lives, the kingdom of heaven is within you.
His cousin John he often praised and John may well have spent some of his life as an Essene Monk. These wouldbe among the very few Jewish Monks in the history of Judaism. Jesus himself would often slip off alone to pray. But just as Jesus does manifest some of the qualities and experiences of the type of king who lives all his life in a palace and yet he is nothing like them in many ways so it is with monasticism. Jesus is the monk-like seeker of prayer and solitude who endures fasting. But Jesus integrates this with much more of his life’s many assets and aspects. He is in the world but not of it. But he is no less in the world. Jesus is no libertine but is sometimes thought to be one, he is very much one committed to living his life through physical experience. I myself was once very attracted to the life of Christian monasticism and I respect many teachings learned from Buddhist monks. The great Kung Fu and Zen traditions of Buudhist Monks in China and Japan respectively are powerful examples of the Body being magnificently developed even as it is constrained and disciplined.
When I taught in China I often tried to discuss the connections, contrasts and similarities between China’s ancient martial arts regimes and the Olympic Games which had just been played in Greece and would next be played in China. Watching the Olympics in Beijing was a powerful eperience even though I watched on television from the United States. I saw China struggling to find the fullness of what it can be in the future drawing on what it has been and what it can see as possible. I still love the Olympic tradition. As much as I enjoyed the recent NCAA Men’s basketball championships we call March Madness the Olympics is so much more. Amid so many idealistic and varied stroies we are bound to find one that inspires us.
Today my foot pain and fatigue and the last edges of some respiratory illness nag at me. I wonder if the nails, dog’s teeth, exotic insects, snake’s venomed fangs or crushing wheels which have injured my already imperfect feet during my life have left some additional microbial or neurological injuries or conditions which are going to show forth in new and mysterious ways. Few people succumb to rare diseases picked up long ago and forgotten but if one were to create a likely candidate for such a death it would be I. From world record setting drmant rabies, to tetanus to parasites with long and obscure names I could always be surprised within the realm of medical possibility. What is certain is that I hurt and feel poorly now. So I seek in memory and in other places for Olympic types of inspiration. Whatever shall be shall be. I may not be Michael Phelps but I can rush out to meet whatever challenges my life holds. At least I hope that I can.
Christians are the only existing great religious community whose sacred scriptures refer repeatedly to the Olympics. The Olympics celebrate all of humanity but through the body. China’s recent olympics connected with its monastic martial arts tradition but saw the body celebrated openly and publicly in a defferent Olympics tradition. The New Testament discusses winning prizes, racing, boxing, the training of athletes in themselves and more strongly as metaphors for the spitiual life. Today I drag my body along a bit. Sometimes my body fuels my race through life. I wish all of you good and appreciated health.