The body knows

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The body knows
“We’ll smile at one another with our eyes because our mouths are covered. In doing so, we’ll live in our bodies a truth that our rampant individualism would often rather ignore: there is no physical or spiritual way of living merely for ourselves.” Photo: Agustin Paglioriti/Shutterstock

But a sore throat doesn’t always mean what you think it does

Our bodies are transitory vessels built from recycled carbon like every other living being on this planet. Bits and parts of you have probably been a cricket or a dinosaur or a single blade of grass on the prairies.

—Eden Robinson, Son of a Trickster

My body has been shooting me a lot of false signals during this pandemic. I have had a sore throat for roughly 60% of the last five months, which means that I have spent at least that amount of time fretting that I might have COVID. Pre-lockdown I would have actively discounted mild bodily discomfort, worked through sniffles and chalked up headaches and tiredness to seasonal allergies and too much stress, but we are suddenly living in a world that encourages mild hypochondria in all of us. It used to be the case that I could rarely turn on the radio or open the pages of a magazine without the discussion turning to the newest diet and weight loss advice, but now not a day goes by that I’m not exposed to analyses of the whole host of symptoms that might play out in a person’s body when this dreaded virus has infiltrated it. It’s not that my sore throat is imagined; rather, I see it as a manifestation of the crazy-making times we are living in, where an obsessive focus on our body’s aches and pains is suddenly part of how we show our care for one another. It’s our job right now to worry that we might have the coronavirus.

That mind-body connection can result in some skewed information at the best of times. I can think I’m hungry, when really I’m bored. I can feel exhausted, when actually I’m sad. I have run 28 km on an injured hip and had no idea because the endorphins have been pumping so hard that I didn’t feel the pain. But this mind-body connection also relays knowledge that is spot-on. I know exactly the part of my stomach that suddenly feels like it has a ball of lead sitting in it when I am confronted with a word that God is asking me to hear when I would rather not. Shocking occurrences ripple through my body like a web of electricity. My breath catches in my throat in one particular spot when I am in the presence of the holy.

In an oft-quoted passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the saint asks this fledgling Christian community whether or not they remember that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19). Paul asks this question of his fellow Christians within a conversation that warns against adultery, fornication, drunkenness and a number of other popular sins (popular in the sense of both how much people like to commit them and how much people like to condemn them). This is why this verse usually gets quoted as a threat. Don’t swear, get tattoos, have the wrong kind of sex or eat too much sugar, because doing so dishonours God. What is missed in this easy read are the radical promises of the gospel. We are promised that in our body we can share in Jesus’s resurrection and be raised as he is. We are promised that in our body we are woven into the life of community, that our body is part of Christ’s Body. We are promised that God honours, blesses, draws near and is revealed, incarnate, in our biological, flesh-and-blood reality.

This isn’t just a promise; it’s also an invitation to knowledge. The body knows. Our living, breathing bodies, temples of the Holy Spirit, have information to impart, information that we ignore at our own peril. And that information also needs to be filtered through the communal reality of how one body exists within our collective body, how the living God who comes close to me must be discerned and loved within the context of community.

This communal, relational body has been shouting knowledge at us for a very long time now. It’s not just the rising sea levels, the extreme weather patterns, the escalating temperatures and the wave of mass extinction through which we have currently been living that has been shouting. It’s also that our rising rates of depression and mental illness, our collective obesity and our need for an increasing variety of substances to numb and loosen us also have important messages to convey. In response to these various iterations of crisis, we have tended to double down on the questions of individual need and personal salvation—What do I need? Desire? What fulfills me? What inadequacies are holding me back? What can fill me and my void?—and what we have failed to hear in all of our relentless focus on weight, diet, exercise, mental well-being and physical wellness is this similarly relentless calling back to the truth of who we really are. I am not an individual. I am a relationship. Biologically, not to mention spiritually, I am intricately and intimately connected to the carbon, oxygen, water and energy being recycled among all living beings. I, and several billion other “I”s, are all trying to live on this planet as if these bodies are just about us. But that core spiritual knowledge was offered to us so long ago, and we have continually failed to hear it: that body, that temple, isn’t just about you; this body is part of A Body; and in that Body, God is at work.

In these horrifying, terrifying days of COVID-19 is a calling back to what the body knows. Physical distance, lockdown and quarantine are part of our current daily realities now because of the truth that we are so freaking connected. Lockdown doesn’t change the truth that all of that carbon, oxygen, water and energy is still being exchanged between my body and the whole pattern of water, air, earth and fellow living beings across the planet; two metres between you and me, a mask and frequent hand washing has a chance of allowing that exchange to happen without also exchanging this unseen and all-too-deadly virus. When we’re in our churches this fall, we’ll rely on our shared space-and-time-bending prayer and ritual to connect us, even as our bodies will resolutely not touch. We’ll receive blessed bread through contactless delivery, and we’ll smile at one another with our eyes because our mouths are covered. In doing so, there will live in our bodies a truth that our rampant individualism would often rather ignore: there is no physical or spiritual way of living merely for ourselves. Each of our choices affects our whole planet’s well-being.

My constant sore throat hasn’t (yet) been my body’s way of telling me I have COVID. What it might be telling me is that there is something I need to know, something we need to know. Maybe my body, and maybe our Body, isn’t going to let us ignore the truth any longer. Like it or not, this—all of this—is my concern too. There is no “opt-out” option in COVID, and there really never has been an opt-out option in the other spheres of our collective life either, much as we have liked to pretend otherwise. Just as we all have a job to do in how we navigate this pandemic, so too we all share in a responsibility to consider carefully how we treat the vulnerable among us, because how we treat the vulnerable affects us all. And by the way, there is no separate reality called “the environment” of whose care we choose (or not) as some left-leaning political agenda item. The environment is us and in us, and no one gets to be physically well without attending to the physical wellness of the whole planet.

More hopefully, maybe my sore throat is serving me up a reminder that there is power, and that power is found only and always in how we care for one another. I can cover my mouth, wash my hands, keep my distance and stay home. We can distribute wealth more justly, reduce our carbon footprint, guarantee a living wage, house the homeless, affirm labour that we have too often overlooked, and upend entrenched routines and systems of our collective life when it becomes clear that we have an emergency on our hands.

The body knows, but the body knows within the context of how my living, breathing cells connect me to the whole world around me. My anxious mind is manifesting this physical symptom in my throat, and maybe what this persistent, niggling, bodily pain is really trying to tell me is that this isn’t just about me. Thank God it’s never just about me.

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Martha Tatarnic
Canon Martha Tatarnic serves as the rector of St. George's Anglican Church in St. Catharines, Ontario. Her book "The Living Diet" is now available on Amazon.

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