Recent events have shifted a lot more attention to our bodies. Temperature checks, masks and compulsive hand-washing have reminded us that we are biological creatures subject to the laws of nature. It all feels a bit heavy — and not just because of all the quarantine weight gain!
There’s an existential heaviness, or perhaps groundedness, in remembering that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Remembering that we are embodied creatures might seem especially jarring right now because we have been passing through an age of “weightlessness” that comes with spending lots of time online.
We have lost the weight and physicality of books, personal letters, newspapers, magazines, even ourselves! As students and parents sit through countless Zoom meetings, there is the sensation that one is there but not really there, a ghost on a screen.
As Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan used to say, when communication happens at the speed of light, everybody becomes a nobody. Every body becomes a “no body.”
The word “communication” used to mean the physical transport of goods on a ship or train. It has taken on a much more ephemeral meaning now. When we communicate online, we don’t send a physical message (like a letter or a photograph), we send ourselves (minus our bodies).
As I write this on the feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, I wonder about all of the selfies, photographed memories and passing thoughts that have been taken up into the cloud for all the world to see. Images, impressions and ideas, but no bodies.
Our identity is rooted in our relationship to our body. Formed from the “humus” of the earth, we humans are fully embodied and enfleshed souls made for heaven. To be made in the image and likeness of God is an astonishing reality!
When we spend much of our time engaged in activities that require very little of our bodies (sitting at a computer for eight hours, for example), we tend to forget the ground that supports our identity, our bodies. That is, until a pandemic reminds us that we are very much embodied creatures.
The natural result of such a forgetting is to seek identity in a group. This explains much of the social dynamic online, a retribalization of humanity. We have returned to the chaotic dynamics of tribal living and the rancor online stems in large part from the tribal warfare that comes with trying to assert one’s identity as part of a new collective.
That spills over into daily life as physical symbols like masks become totems of the new tribalism rather than a prudent precautionary measure for limiting the spread of disease. We even see it in the church, as traditional groups square off against more progressive groups in wars of words (and images) online.
What gets lost in all of this is the reality that we are all part of the mystical body of Christ. Christ is the head and we are the members. Our identity is grounded in being part of a body, and having a body.
Take a moment this week to engage in some embodied practices. Go for a long walk, plant a garden, stretch, run, lift, pray on your knees. You might even feel the passing threads of online tribalism fading away as you recall your true identity as a member of Christ’s body, the Church.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.