Waiting for the Body

Modern medicine has stripped the body of the sanctity and mystery with which God endowed it. Instead of seeing people (body and soul) as “fearfully and wonderfully made” and knit together by God in their mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139), we treat the people as separate from their bodies and approach the body as a machine. I have been guilty of this mindset.

When I started getting an odd pain in my left ankle a couple years ago, I initially ignored it, hoping it would resolve itself. When it continued and worsened, I went to an orthopedic doctor, who told me I had tendonitis and to wear orthotics and then to use a walking boot. When that didn’t help, I went to another doctor for a second opinion and got an MRI. This doctor concluded that my navicular bone was swollen (I know – “What??”) and prescribed physical therapy. To make a long story short, I searched left and right, up and down for the source of my pain and the solution to fix it. I tried everything short of surgery, from anti-inflammatory drugs to chiropractic adjustments to acupuncture to prolotherapy injections. The only thing I didn’t try was waiting. Actually, I was forced to wait, because the pain didn’t go away.

Looking back on the first year or so of having ankle pain, I recognize a poisonous attitude which hindered my ability to respond well to the pain. I was treating my body as if it were a car that had malfunctioned. I just wanted a mechanic to tinker around a bit, oil it up, and get it running again the way it used to. In my mind, my body was “broke.” I was dead set on doing whatever it took to “fix” it. Since it wasn’t getting fixed, I was angry and desperate – you can’t get a new body the way you can get a new car. But that’s what I thought I needed – just a replacement part, or some kind of easy tune-up.

But what if the body is not an “it”? What if it’s a “thou” (in the words of Martin Buber[1]). Flora Slosson Wuellner calls the body our life companion.[2] Our body is part of our self – a self which is made in God’s image, not just a machine to be used. Our bodies receive and register things that our conscious selves cannot. Our bodies may register the pain of a traumatic event through headaches or unusual pains, even if our conscious selves cannot bring that event up in our memory. They may manifest anxiety or stress through an outbreak of acne, or indigestion. If we stop treating the body simply as something to be fixed, but rather as a part of our self that communicates valuable knowledge about our experiences and our identity, then perhaps we would approach illness and pain in a completely different manner.

There are, of course, often legitimate physical causes for bodily ailments. For my part, I am suspicious that Cipro, an antibiotic drug in the fluoroquinolone category that I took for an infection two weeks before the pain started and which is known for causing spontaneous tendon ruptures and tendonitis (I wish my doctor had told me that!)[3] was the instigator of my ankle pain (again, another case where modern medicine does not properly honor bodily wisdom but instead intervenes with solutions that often cause more harm than good).

Even though my pain may have had a physical cause, however, I try to catch myself when I have the urge to run around like a chicken with my head cut off trying this and that treatment, looking for any possible fix. I still experiment with different treatments to try to relieve the pain and return back to my previous level of activity. But I am learning not to expect my body to always respond to treatment in a direct cause-effect, mechanistic way, nor to expect everything to suddenly be all better in two weeks. To be sure, God can work miracles, and maybe He will gift me with a quick, complete healing.

But maybe God also wants to teach me, in the midst of the pain, to wait for my body, to be gentle and patient, and to listen to this oft-ignored part of myself. I hope one day, whether the pain is gone or not, I’ll be able to truly acknowledge my body as a valuable and wise life companion whose rhythms and processes cannot fully be dissected by modern science, but rather are fearfully and wonderfully sustained by God.

[1] See Martin Buber’s book I and Thou (1958, New York: Scribner).

[2] Flora Slosson Wuellner, Prayer and Our Bodies (1987, Nashville, TN: The Upper Room).

[3] For more about the dangerous effects of Cipro and similar drugs, click here and here.


Poor Bodies, Rich Bodies

When riding the green line train through Chicago to grad school last year, I would notice that as we left the downtown “Loop” business area and rattled deeper into the poverty-stricken South Side, people started looking different. Most obviously, the number of White people decreased and the number of Black people increased. By the time I reached my stop in the heart of the South Side, there were almost no non-Black people to be seen.  I also began to notice something less obvious, however, about people on the South Side – there were way more people on crutches, in wheelchairs, and missing limbs here than in the wealthier parts of the city.

This observation is, of course, only supported by my own “quick and dirty” street research.  Some other facts, however, contribute to its validity. The South Side is known for street violence. It makes sense that the bodies of the people living here would reflect this painful legacy. Also, poor people are not able to afford the same quality or amount of healthcare as wealthier people. Sadly, this lack of access to treatment results in debilitating conditions which could have been prevented. Furthermore, poor people often do not have the resources or education to make healthy eating choices. It is well known that there is more obesity among poor people, a condition which leads to a range of other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.

I found myself strangely drawn to these people on the South Side with their broken, beat-up bodies. One day, as the bus I was riding lowered to meet the curb and a wheelchair rolled on, I raised my eyes to meet the gaze of a very large boy in a wheelchair. He looked around 10 years old, but his weight was probably twice that of a grown man. Part of me wanted to look away in disgust, but the other part of me held his gaze, driven by a deeper impulse. The look on his face was heartbreaking. There was a hint of childish innocence and curiosity, but also a wistful listlessness and despondency.

The bodies of this boy and of others I encountered on the South Side profoundly unsettled me. But as I resisted the urge to turn away and ignore them, I was able to see in them something more than just the grimy and grotesque. These are the sick people for whom Jesus came to rescue! If Jesus were walking again on this earth, I am sure he would wind up in Chicago’s South Side at some point, putting his hand gently on the boy in the wheelchair’s drooping head, making up a dirt-spit plaster for the woman with the white burn scar streaking across her brown face.

Me? I recognize a bit of the Pharisee in me – the part that wants to escape to the shady streets of my quiet suburban neighborhood, where joggers with sleek, toned muscles and expensive running clothes breeze past, and where I don’t have to think about poverty and broken bodies. Yet, I am grateful for my exposure to the poor bodies on the South Side. In some ways, their scars, disfigurement, and pain seem more raw, more honest, and more ready for a Savior than the put-together, self-sufficient bodies of the wealthy. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care of our bodies and seek healthcare when we need it, or that we shouldn’t work with the poor to increase their access to healthcare and their chance to lead healthy lives.  I just wonder what we as the Church could gain from simply being with the poor and being in contact with their physical brokenness, and what we lose by ignoring them.

Receiving God into our Bodies

The Virgin Mary is a role model for many reasons. She possessed a purity of being which won her the favor of the Most High God. She accepted with unparalleled humility the calling to mother the Son of God. She bore unspeakable suffering as she watched her Son make his way to the cross. But we often overlook another remarkable part of her story.

Mary received God into her body. Wow. The writers of the four Gospels don’t dwell on this amazing little detail. In fact, Mark and John don’t even mention it. Matthew (1:18) skims over it – “She was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” Luke (1:35) alone goes into more depth when he recounts Gabriel’s words to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Recently, the magnitude of everything that is not said in these short few words swept over me. God came to life in Mary’s body. The Son of God was formed in Mary’s womb. He was knit together, cell by cell, membrane by membrane, nourished by Mary’s blood, Mary’s breath, Mary’s heartbeat. God dwelt in the very depths of Mary’s body.

What does it feel like to have the Holy Spirit come upon you? To have the power of the Most High overshadow you? What does it feel like to receive God into your body?

To be sure, Mary is unique in the scheme of things. None of us will get the chance to conceive and give birth to the Son of God. Yet, I think this lesser-discussed aspect of Mary’s story holds truth for us as well. The truth is that God is not absent from our physical bodies. He deems our bodies worthy enough of his divine nature to enter and be present with us in them.

So how can we receive God into our bodies? We talk a lot about asking Jesus into our hearts, but what about into the rest of our beings? I can’t speak for us all, but I can give some personal examples.

I receive God into my body when I slip into a warm bath, mindful of all the burdens I have placed on my body throughout the day – exerting muscles, staring at computer screens, tensing from stress – and grateful for its God-given abilities to recuperate and heal. I receive God into my body when I enjoy dinner, remembering the farmers who raised the chicken, the workers who picked the tomatoes, the truck drivers who transported the food, and the store clerks who work at just above minimum wage to get it to my table. I receive God into my body in a friend’s hug, in a fierce wind that blows the cobwebs out of my soul, in a much-needed nap. I receive God into my body when I partake of the Eucharist, which is the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.

How do you receive God into your body?

Contact Improv

A few years ago I was part of a clowning show in my college theatre about the life of King David. Yes, we did some silly things, like juggle, make faces, and walk on stilts. But we also created very meaningful art. One of my favorite things we experimented with is called Contact Improvisation.

There is one basic rule to Contact Improv – you must always keep one part of your body touching the other person(s) you are improving with. It doesn’t have to be the same part. You just always have to be touching at some continuous point. Other than that, you can move, you can jump, you can slither, you can crawl. Whatever.

But – you have to be mindful of the other person. Which direction is she moving? Will we still be able to keep going if I roll down to her foot on my belly? Where do we go from here? How do we get off the ground and still remain in contact? Of course, you’re not really thinking all of that. You are just…flowing. I found it much easier to do Contact Improv if I just let my body go somewhat limp at the point of contact. I pictured my partner and I holding a ball between ourselves and rolling it from surface to surface.

This is all much easier to understand when you see it in motion. Click on the images in this post to watch a couple YouTube videos of Contact Improv (the first is about 30 seconds and the second is  a longer piece set to music).

When two people get comfortable enough with each other, Contact Improvisation becomes a beautiful dance. Two bodies find a shared rhythm around a single center of gravity. It’s hard to tell where one body ends and the other begins. Four legs, four arms, two heads, and two torsos move as one unit.

I loved Contact Improv because it forced me to be in tune not just with my own body, but someone else’s as well. Nothing (well, almost nothing) was off limits. Head touched thigh touched neck touched hip touched chest. I love that you can let people into your “personal” space and accept them there as other living, moving bodies. I also love that this close contact doesn’t have to be “weird” or “gross” or sexual. It just is. It is two people being bodies together, maybe even delighting in it and creating something beautiful out of it.