Ghost in the Shell
Care of the body is as important as care of the soul.
By Lincoln Swain
My mother has a lovely picture of me at my baptism, all dolled up in my grandfather’s blazing white baptism gown. My parents were choosing Christ for me that day. They were saving my soul at the same time they were acknowledging that I now had one.
But what is the soul? Is it something given to us, absolutely pure until it is sullied by our sins and then cleansed by repentance? Or is it something we build, more gritty and complex, a glorious shambles, scarred and barbed, yet still aglow as we press on? By this I mean perhaps the soul is an unfinished symphony of our life experiences and the jangling inner world of our mind.
Why then do so many people focus more on the innocence of children than the wisdom of the old? We cry and fight over the aborted fetus, the miscarriage, the stillbirth, yet legions of geezers with troves of experience are fossilizing alone behind the doors of nursing homes and shabby apartments. Isn’t an old soul, a well-lived soul, more valuable, more interesting than a virgin fresh one? Perhaps but the old soul is hardly as soothing as the thought of a happy child reveling in the carefree delights of youth. We envy children and their “fresh start.” We see ourselves as them. The old remind us of what’s to come.
Christ warned that you must have the heart of a child to enter his kingdom. He doesn’t want you to be a child. Rather, the goal is to transcend the rough and tumble of life, the pride and pretenses of adulthood, in order to turn to trust in Christ as a child trusts in others.
I urge you to get up from your computer and find a mirror. Look at your face. Who is that staring back? Where did those wrinkles come from, the furrows in your brow, the laugh lines around the mouth, the chin starting to recede into jowls? Too much sunbathing? Too many cigarettes? Too many steaks? Too many nights of drinks and laughs at the cocktail lounge? Too many hours spent fretting and stewing about the kids, the mortgage, the boss? Before you reach for the phone to call the plastic surgeon for a Botox injection or a face-lift, remember the words of a famous German philosopher: after a certain age, you are responsible for your face.
The body’s actions imprint the soul. Indeed, the body isn’t just the temple of the soul; it is through the body that the soul imposes itself upon the world—writing, speaking, running, loving, building. And killing. Canada, a country with some of the most liberal social programs in the world, nonetheless has a provision in its legal code that allows a judge to commit a criminal to indefinite incarceration if that person is deemed to be a “dangerous offender.” The violent, narcissistic soul, unrestrained by remorse or conscience, paired with an able and willing body, is dangerous indeed. Such a person is beyond rehabilitation; there is nothing to rehabilitate. The person is not responsible for their actions because they have no ability to judge and hence control when they are becoming evil.
Devils are made not born. To overcome our fear of evil and evildoers, we must acknowledge that good and evil do not exist outside of lived experience. Evil is created along with goodness, as people live, as they act. If you read Romeo Dallaire’s account of the Rwandan massacre, “Shake Hands with the Devil,” you quickly realize the infinite degrees and admixtures of good and evil that can come to life in a man, a tribe, a country, an international organization under extraordinary circumstances of Man’s own making. Act like Satan and you will be Satan. Even choosing to do nothing can be evil if the situation demands action. That is why the parable of the Good Samaritan endures not just as a heartwarming tale of action but also as a cautionary tale against inaction.
A wicked soul does not necessarily need a strong body to wreak havoc. One of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, Richard III, was a man of diminished physical capabilities yet was able to do much harm through the nefarious cunning of his mind. Richard is not evil because he is disabled. He is evil because he does evil, which may or may not be rooted in his treatment by others as a disabled individual.
Many Christians fear their bodies because they don’t understand them. And they don’t want to understand. Their focus is the soul and its salvation. The body is a temptress, dirty and wicked. The body is sinful. Sin takes the soul away from God and in turn the eternal reward promised to a submissive soul. Thus, many people see their own body as an enemy that can foil their faith. Or even worse, as a coping mechanism, they self-aggrandize the purity of their own body by regarding other bodies as sinful and impure.
On a deeper level, the body is also the weathervane of decline, of impending physical demise. When we see a physically handicapped person, we are uncomfortable because we see ourselves in the unavoidable future or what might have been in the past. You read all kinds of stories about cancer or AIDS patients who are shunned by their friends and family because of their illness, as if the person is a talisman of doom.
Pain is a terrible distraction from life. Pain becomes the be-all and end-all of your life. Pain puts you on a quest for escape. It shadows you and mocks you. Doctors, massage therapists, chiropractors, alternative medicine practitioners, shamans, and swindlers offer hope but little else. You lose confidence in your body ever being well again. The soul begins to despair. How many people commit suicide in order to execute their tormentor, the body?
I had the dubious pleasure of being seated next to a child psychologist at a dinner party not long ago. The man enjoys a lucrative practice tending to the troubled youth of the tony suburbs north of Detroit. He was bragging about the fabulous golf outings that he used to enjoy courtesy of the pharmaceutical companies whose pills he loves to prescribe to tots and teenagers. His philosophy of medicine was simple: long-suffering parents of emotionally disturbed children should be thankful for the chemical gulag medical science provided. I was appalled. Coming to grips with being alive is a heavy ticket. What youth doesn’t struggle with building a conscience or learning to be socially adept? These are not trifling projects. A pill may impose calm yet does it really still the storms? Can the storms ever be stilled? Do you really want to still them?
Charlene is a successful young woman. She has a thriving career as a computer scientist and runs a small mail-order cosmetic business on the side. She is also black and morbidly obese. One day she came to me and said that she intended to have gastric bypass surgery to once and for all lose the girth she had built up over 25 years of inactivity and slavish overeating. When she was a teenager, she was ashamed of her fat. In college, she subscribed to magazines that promoted “fat power.” Since then, she had starved and gorged her way through every diet on the market. Yet she was a stranger to herself as a material being. Even the primal pleasures of bodily function (and they are pleasures)— urination, defecation, sexual climax—were nuisances at best. As she was telling me this, I thought what do I, a fortysomething rail-thin white man, have to tell a thirtysomething morbidly obese black woman about her body? I sensed that Charlene wanted my blessing for the operation, to tell her it was wise to do something this radical to a body already under siege from diabetes and hypertension.
I offered her a “soulful” take on her situation. With the surgery you will lose weight, sure, but you will also be forced to live a diminished life that involves some high maintenance activities. Make no mistake: gastric bypass surgery is the equivalent of running a white flag up a pole. It’s saying I give up. My inattention to the wellness of my body has brought me to this precipice of defeat. Charlene shook her head in agreement.
Just as when you commit your life to living in the Christian way, I said, you must commit yourself to physical wellness by living well. Own your body. Know it, feel it, be it. Diets don’t work because they either don’t change habits or they create a whole new set of destructive behaviors. Wellness is something that you have to vigilantly build and manage in your consciousness until it almost becomes second nature. I urged her to forgo the surgery and visit the cardiovascular center at the University of Michigan instead where they could develop a long-term dietary and exercise regimen for her.
Over the past year, Charlene has lost over 100 pounds. And she still has all the stomach she was born with.
The body we come into the world with is sometimes not the one we leave behind. Think of the thousands of brave young men and women returning from the war in Iraq on stretchers. For weeks, months, even years, they will be receiving care for the wounds they incurred under miserable, terrifying conditions. Some have lost limbs. Others are mentally disabled. That these kids have been cut down in their prime and that, thanks to budget cuts, they may not get the medical care they so desperately need is heartbreaking. But worse is the fact that more than a few of them will be lost to self-pity, regret, and resentment. They will refuse to accept the new terms of their existence. They will be dead in life.
Pity the pianist with a blown off hand who turns his back on the piano forever, simply because he can no longer play it as he once did. My point is that he can now play it in a different, perhaps even more compelling manner with one hand because the possibility of doing so, which was he hidden from himself when he had two hands, is now available.
We are imperfect. We break easily. We decay quickly. More often than we like to think, our genes go off the beaten path of best hopes. But we are glorious in our imperfection. We should thank our creator for these imperfections because they keep us humble. Yet we are perfect enough to enjoy the gift of Life as we create our life.
Lincoln Swain is the pseudonym of an Episcopal priest and theologian living in the Detroit area. His last piece for SoMA was The Anti-Purpose-Driven Life.
Excerpted from Dare to Defy: Conquering Fear with Active Faith, by Lincoln Swain. Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from Atomic Quill Press.
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