As we talk about Not Doing Well over on the podcast, we’re reminded of how often many of us ignore what our body might be saying. When our bodies try to let us know we are tired or stressed or burned out, we are trained to embrace a “mind over matter” mentality and push through the pain. Here, Allender Center Fellow Heather Stringer, LMHC, invites us to affirm that our bodies are worth listening to—not only because it is the wise or healthy thing to do, but because the intricacy of how we are created reflects the fundamental truth that God is for the body.
If you were to walk 100,000 miles, you would travel around the earth about 4.5 times. If you were to look inside your body, you would discover 100,000 miles of blood vessels. Miles upon miles of intricate roads circulating nutrients and oxygen. This oxygen is entering your body in cupfuls, 26 cups per minute. Our lungs then facilitate the work of exchanging gases, allowing our blood vessels to take in what they need. All of this is reflexive and without sight, but to then see with our eyes is another beautiful thing. Each retina has six million cones residing in it transmitting light intensity, which then creates the sensation of color. In other words, our eyes feel color. This is a mere glimpse into the symphony of bodily intelligence.
Our bodies are phenomenal and vast. Yet, how often are we fighting against them? It’s such a common experience to be in conflict with it. The physical pain, the appearance, or the cravings of our body uncover the struggle to be in communion with them. We have experiences in which we are betrayed by our body’s response or need, and so it becomes more of an antagonist rather than a companion.
“Our bodies are phenomenal and vast. Yet, how often are we fighting against them?”
Many years ago, I was nannying a 4-year-old boy and one day, as we were eating, I playfully acted out an old, crotchety teacher telling him to eat his veggies. He kept asking me to play her. A few minutes after I broke character he asked me to do it again. I told him I needed a break because it took some effort to get into character. He asked me what “effort” meant and I told him it means my body uses a lot of energy and after a while I get tired. I assumed we moved on from the conversation, but then he looked up and said to me, “Just don’t listen to your body.”
How cunning was his solution? And, how normative this behavior has become in our culture. Sooner or later, though, our bodies will speak, yet in a language difficult to understand since it’s disjointed from the past and the present. So, like a good prophet, our bodies suffer alongside us, asking us to see and suture together the stories with the physical reactions.
This dialogue with our bodies doesn’t require apprehending them, but posturing ourselves with curiosity and dignity. Culture tells us to either dominate our body into an ideal or accept our body as is. Dominance and acceptance are two sides of the same coin: they ignore our body’s voice. Because these body-stories disrupt. They don’t fit in. They can’t be pigeon-holed. The disruption, though, is necessary; it’s what comes to us asking for understanding, not judgment or passivity. Yet, we need a container, a form within our Christian context that doesn’t begin with flesh is bad.
In A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle writes about how God offers a structure to write our life sonnet. The form offers freedom to express and live out one’s poetry. I found the form for a bodily sonnet in a surprising passage in Scripture many years ago. My church community was spending time in Corinthians, and I was given the task to meditate and study 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. At first glance I grimaced at the thought of engaging this infamous text on fleeing immorality. I was drained by the notion of giving a group of people more bodily prohibitions. But then, a few lines nestled in the dry patch of words surprised me: “And the Lord is for the body.” Plump and ripe.
…and the Lord is for the body.
…and the Lord is for the body.
…and the Lord is for the body.
I’ve always known my body was for the Lord, which usually highlighted its fallenness, but never had I imagined or been told that the God of the universe was for my flesh and bones. This meant the particularities of my body: my arms, breasts, eyes, genitals, lungs, heart, liver, stomach, uterus, and spine. The Lord is for every layer of skin, fat, and muscle; every sinew and blood vessel, every vertebra and ligament. The Lord is for orgasm and tears, menstruation and post-partum. This “form” is one of affection from Yahweh towards our bodies in which poetry can emerge.
“Culture tells us to either dominate our body into an ideal or accept our body as is. Dominance and acceptance are two sides of the same coin: they ignore our body’s voice.”
Our body-ness, our belovedness, pull us toward healing because the Lord is first and foremost for our bodies. Just look at the scab covering a wound or the natural mending of a broken bone when there is a form (or rather a cast) for it to heal inside. The form for the sonnet from God is “I am for every body,” and this makes a container for us to hear what our bodies long to speak. We can begin to listen to our chronic pain, our STI’s, our need to dominate or subjugate particular body parts, our headaches, our numbness, our IBS, our deprivation or indulgence with reverence and as students, willing to be taught by our bodies’ responses to the past and present.
I’ve had to listen to the reasons why I numb my body. I’ve had to track stories, from as early as 5 to my adolescence, in which I felt embarrassment for my naiveté and inexperience. As an adolescent, I dated a teenage boy who enjoyed exposing me to things I’d never seen or felt before. However, after a certain point of exposure, I’d “cut off blood flow” from feeling the discomfort. My determination to endure things that I secretly did not want done to me, but was made to experience, required nerve compression. Yet this numbness has caused disruption throughout my life; it keeps me, at times, from delight and pleasure, from saying my “no” and finding my “yes.” I could pigeonhole my numbness by saying “this is just who I am!” Or use harsh ways to correct my numbness. However, these two responses leave me dismissive and angry—neither are curious about why I cut off or compress in the first place.
If I’m surrounded by the Creator’s advocacy for my body, no matter if it’s innocent and inexperienced or numb and hidden, can I listen tenderly and sew together the disparate parts?
In the Talmud, there’s a humorous remark about how “a person should always see himself as if holiness resided within his intestines.” Holiness in our intricate eyes and holiness in the 25 feet of dark intestines. No matter how grotesque or stunning, we hear, right in this very moment, God’s deep affirmation and affection for our bodies. So let the body speak, let its suffering and longing lead us as we stitch together our flesh with our stories; there the sonnets await, because:
The Lord is for your body
The Lord is for my body
The Lord is for all bodies.