The Personalist Project

No, that's not me.

My son got me a fitbit for my birthday, and I'm trying to make friends with it. The other night when I was half asleep, it started vibrating and sent me into a panic. I realized eventually that it just wanted to congratulate me for meeting my daily step goal. It didn't mean any harm. 

But I can't shake the sense that it's too nosy, too insistent about eavesdropping on my every morsel and movement. I'd rather go about my business carefree, the way I used to, ingesting jelly donuts because they taste good, not because I can afford the carbs today, or burning calories as an unnoticed side effect of tickling my toddlers.

And it makes me wonder: How exactly are we supposed to approach this bizarre reality, the body, at once a lump of meat and a Temple of the Holy Spirit?

In German, they have two words for body: Leib and Körper. Leib means lived body: the body as experienced by the one who "inhabits" it. The Leib is mysteriously but undeniably connected to your soul, your psyche, your subjectivity. It's unlike any other material object. 

Körper means body, too, but as in "body of water" or "celestial body." It's a quantity of matter, a lump of flesh, subject to the laws of physics like any other piece of material stuff. In this sense, we're literally made out of meat.

We can get bodies wrong in two ways roughly parallel to these two terms.

First, we can see only the Leib. We can focus on its link to our subjectivity and disregard the "made out of meat" part. Especially online, as my ever-perceptive Facebook friend Deirdre Mundy points out,

[O]ne of the alluring things about [Facebook] is that it allows us to play at being disembodied spirits, interacting in the ether, and that is not who we are made to be.

So we can over-spiritualize the body, or we can deem it irrelevant. Or we can imagine it's under our control in a way it's not. To take a trivial example, we can deceive people by posting only edited, filtered pictures of ourselves, or even pass off somebody else as ourselves. Or we can fabricate an elaborate fictional identity and perpetrate a prolonged deception, as Chase Padusniak described a few days ago in The Catfishing of the Catholic Community.  Short of that, we can engage in a truncated kind of communication that excludes touch and hearing.

The more dependent we are on the screen, the more our bodies drop out of the picture. We come disconcertingly close to the kind of world I described in a recent post about

harrowing sci-fi story called “Spectator Sport” by John D.MacDonald [...] in which everyone's highest aspiration is to spend the rest of his days in an underground cubicle (in a disused subway tunnel) surgically attached to a machine that provides you with the sense perceptions of the protagonist of various movies. The working class gets to experience this intermittently; the privileged few become "perms," and don't ever have to stop. 

They might as well not have bodies at all. Virtual reality has no use for bodies.

The second and opposite mistake is to see the body only as a lump of flesh, and to focus all our energies on making it a cooperative one. We can become obsessed with manipulating it to our own specifications. We eat x grams of carbs, burn x calories, time our ingestion of y to coincide with our ingestion of z. We become incapable of feasting for sheer celebration, running for sheer exhilaration.

Then again, we imagine we can mix and match pieces, "transitioning" from male to female or vice versa, with the help of chemicals and the surgeon's knife. No wonder we're confused. 

My fitbit isn't really out to get me. There's no reason I can't track my steps without deforming my understanding of the mind-soul-spirit-Leib-Körper problem. People do it all the time.

As long as we remember that we're meat. But also more than meat.

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