“My mind thinks I’m still 25. My body thinks my mind is an idiot.” This piece of social media wisdom may not be the most subtle or sophisticated, but it probably is the most recent example of an imagined conversation or debate between body and mind.
In such exchanges, not uncommon in medieval and Renaissance literature, the mind (or spirit or soul—the terms were sometimes used interchangeably) is the superior party, the essence of the person. It might berate the body, which it associated with carnality, lust, and the flesh, for leading the soul into sinful and destructive behavior.
The body might reply that it was merely a pile of inert matter, unable to do anything without being directed and animated by the soul.
Or as in Plato, the body is pictured as a cage in which the soul was entrapped to be released only by death. Or as in some Eastern religions, it might be seen as a coat which one puts on or takes off but which has no life or meaning of its own.
The mainstream Christian (as well as Jewish) tradition rejects this mind–body dualism. It sees the human person as a mind–body composite, an ensouled body or an embodied soul. It gave an important place to the body. It rejected the idea that the soul was good and the body bad. The human body was God’s creation and was good.
God became man and dwelt among us, the orthodoxy proclaimed, and dwells in us still. The body was, as the well-catechized learned, to be treated with dignity and not abused by lust or self-harm.
Forgetting the BodyIn modern times, the split between mind and body has become radical. The body is seen more or less as a machine, though one inhabited for a time by a soul or self.
It might seem odd to say that we neglect the body. After all, do we not idolize youth and physical beauty, seeking by all possible means to slow down our own aging and preserve the bodies we had when we were 25?
But when we think of ourselves, who we are as persons, it is as disembodied beings who have a body in the way we have a car. Both must be maintained properly to obtain proper wear from them.
The Body as Reality CheckThe body provides a reality check when we look in the mirror and see we are not as we saw ourselves. Or find we can no longer run or see or lift weights as we once could. Or see a picture of our mother or father as they were 40 years ago, looking much as we did at the same age. But the mind or self has become disconnected from our bodily reality to an extraordinary degree.
What the Body Tells UsThe body tells us that we are finite beings on earth, born as we die in complete dependence, and subject to becoming dependent once more because of illness or impairment at any stage in life. When the capacity to choose defines humanity, then we are all at times—birth, death, disability, a coma, even sleep—less than human.
When we deny the truth and meaning of the body as central to what it means to be human, we are not taking a higher, more “spiritual” path. We are trying to be as gods while dehumanizing the life we are given.