Consider your body. Look at your hands. Feel your pulse. Imagine the bones and cartilage, organs and skin that somehow work together so that you are a living being. Reflect for a moment on the complex levels of coordination between nerves, blood cells and electrical signals in the brain that allow you to be aware of yourself as a living being. Think also about the bodies of those you love. Remember the smell of your mother’s neck when she hugged away your fears. Recall the rich tones of congregational song that helped you perceive the presence of God before you knew how to believe. All of these experiences point us toward an important truth that is remarkably easy to forget and, shockingly, often denied: we are our bodies. Our most basic sense of ourselves is as bodily beings. And when we love another, we love that person’s body: the sound of a friend’s voice, the spouse’s embrace, the sweet, awkward movements of a child learning to walk.
Sometimes, however, we imagine ourselves as being something other than our bodies. We invent a story about being a noble soul bound by a troublesome body and hope for the day when we will be freed from our bodies and fly off to a heavenly home. We imagine that we are our souls and that our bodies are somehow foreign to us. But our experiences of love and fear, of awe and hope tell us that this is fiction, tell us that this is our home, and that these bodies are part and parcel of who we are. If you care for my body, you have cared for me. If I bind up your wounds, I have helped you. If we abuse our bodies, we damage our very selves. We are our bodies.
This is a truth affirmed not only by our experience, but also by the Bible. In its most faithful moments the Church has woven together its concern for the welfare of human souls with an affirmation that bodily life is what God intends for us, confessing with Psalm 139 that God “created my inmost being; [and] knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Your body and the bodies of those you love were created by God to live on this earth and to be resurrected in the new earth. Our experiences as flesh and blood, bone and cartilage, organs and skin are God-given. This biblical story of bodily creation and bodily redemption is the story we must learn to tell again if we are to be faithful disciples of Christ, who came preaching the reign of God, forgiving the sinful and healing the sick.
Thursday the last patient of the day was Ryan, who I have gotten to know very well over the years. Ryan is now 77 years old and a very lonely man. I think he has always been this way. In the last couple of years his one source of social contact has been our exercise classes. In the past, he fancied himself as a great ballroom dancer, but he has become fairly unsteady on his feet in the last two years. He has often asked me if I thought he would ever be able to dance again, and I have usually said, “Dance as much as you can.” Today at the end of our visit, Ryan looked at me and said, “You know, I still love to dance.” Knowing how unsteady he is on his feet, I said, “Well, I bet you can still slow dance if you’re careful.” “Oh, I can still fast dance.” Then he paused and with a twinkle in his eye added, “if I lean up against the wall.”
- from the journal of Rev. Scott Morris, M.D.
Ryan is a dancer. He has been a dancer for a very long time. Dancing is so central to his identity that the first concern he expresses to Dr. Morris is whether he can continue to do it. Dancing is not just what Ryan does, it is also a dimension of who he is. Ryan is his body. To name Ryan as a dancer is to name a bodily reality. Dancers move with particular grace, with joy in the precision of form, with delight in the interaction with their partners. When we name Ryan as a dancer, we name not only that he obviously cannot dance without a body, but also that there is no Ryan apart from his body.
Ryan is his body, but he is also more than his body. Ryan thinks about his body; he reflects on its changing capacities, imagines dances he might perform and corrections he might make to his steps.
To be human is to be our bodies, but also to be more than our bodies. We cannot be who we are apart from being the bodies that we are, and this means that what happens to our bodies affects our identities. Aging affects Ryan’s balance so that he must dance differently and eventually, perhaps, not dance at all. That change and loss affects his personhood. The shape of his “self” changes and adapts, and sometimes suffers, as the body that is Ryan ages. He still thinks of himself as a dancer, but now when he dances he leans against the wall. The shape of our identities will flow in different directions as the shape of our bodies change. But because we are more than our bodies, our identities are not wholly reducible to what happens to them. Ryan can become unsteady on his feet and still be a dancer. A soldier can lose a leg and still be a mother and a hero. Our bodies affect our identities because even though we are more than our bodies, we are not different from them. We are bodily creatures who bear the image of God. We are our bodies, but are not reducible to them; we are more than our bodies, but we are not different from them. We are dust and breath; creatures who dance and think about ourselves as dancers.
This brief account of the interaction between Ryan and Dr. Morris reveals another important truth as well. Ryan craves contact with other people, and through his relationships with them becomes a richer and more fulfilled person. Ryan was not born into this world a dancer; rather he became a dancer over time and only through interaction with other dancers and dance partners. Indeed, his ongoing desire to dance, whether fast or slow, is also a desire to live in community and find companionship. Just as part of the very joy of dancing lies in coordinating one’s movements with those of another person, so part of joy of human life resides in immersing ourselves in community where we find companionship, shared meaning, and fulfillment. Our need for community and companionship is as strong as Ryan’s, and it is just as essential to our happiness and health. Indeed, “it is not good that [we] should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
Kendra G. Hotz, Ph.D., of Rhodes College and Matt Mathews, Ph.D., of Memphis Theological Seminary serve as theologians-in-residence at the Church Health Center. They are in the process of writing a book on the theology of the Church Health Center that incorporates excerpts from the journal of Rev. Scott Morris, M.D. This is a sneak preview of this work.