When I was growing up, I often repeated a mantra: “Mind over matter.” This idea wasn’t original to me – I picked it up from somewhere, although I don’t know exactly where – but I played it over and over in my head. As a child and teenager, I didn’t realize how much it impacted every aspect of my life, but it became deeply embedded in my view of myself and what it meant to be human, even long into adulthood.
For basically my entire life, I have honestly believed I had the capacity to do anything I set my mind to. The only thing holding me back was my body, and that could be overcome if I simply put my mind to it. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Beating My Body
I have always seemed to attract mosquitos – my mom always joked that I must have sweet blood. For those of you who don’t have the pleasure of attracting mosquitos, their bites itch make your skin itch like crazy. But I believed for a while that the itch was entirely psychological and if I could just convince myself that a bite didn’t itch, it would actually cease to itch.
As another example, I was fascinated by Navy SEALS when I was young because they were able to hold their breath underwater for a long time, so I decided I wanted to teach myself to do the same. Somewhere I learned that the biggest hindrance to being able to hold your breath was your body’s anxiety – the fear that you couldn’t breathe kicked in long before you actually couldn’t breathe – so if you could convince your body to remain calm, you could significantly extend how long you could hold your breath. My mind could exert power over my body to make it comply. So I spent a lot of time trying to overcome the (very reasonable) anxiety of not being able to breathe when you’re underwater.
If I decided I wanted to be a professional athlete, I could work hard at it and make it happen. (Conveniently, I never decided I wanted to pursue sports beyond my nominal participation in high school – but more on that in a moment.)
What I didn’t realize at the time that I was relying on this “mind over matter” mantra, though, was that I was embracing a form of gnostic dualism, a separation between my mind and my body, as if they were two distinct parts of my being. I saw my “mind” as the spiritual part of myself, which was pursuing God, and my body as the flesh, which was inherently corrupt.
Since I thought a good Christian was one who fought against the desires of the flesh to elevate the holiness of the spirit, I worked hard to overcome the limitations of my flesh by embracing the life and power of my mind. I thought the messages my body sent me were distractions from the call of God for my life. When my body told me it was tired, I wanted to push through and work harder; when my body told me something was enjoyable, I wanted to stop doing it. My body was not to be trusted.
Over the years, though, I’ve matured and have come to a different understanding of my body. As an easy example, I’ve learned that I have asthma and that running in certain conditions can trigger it – and I can’t use my mind to simply will an asthma attack to go away. I have to listen to what my body is telling me and, when I feel my lungs struggling to absorb oxygen, I need to stop and take care of my body. I have to value what it’s saying because the reality is that my body and my mind are not distinct entities at war with one another – they are two parts of the same whole that makes up my being.
My mind is important, and it carries on critical functions for my life, but it is inextricably intertwined with my body because it is a part of my body. And I cannot be healthy in my own understanding of myself and the world God created until I come to understand and appreciate my body.
God made me human, and God called my humanity “good.” In fact, God became human, enfleshed in Jesus Christ, and by doing so demonstrated to us that our bodies cannot be intrinsically bad. By becoming incarnate as a human, Christ redeemed our bodies, showing us that our body is not a sinful vessel to be overcome, but is a critical aspect of what it means to be human, which is to say that my flesh is good.
Learning to Love My Body
So now I am working to re-learn what it means to be in my body instead of at war with my body. I am constantly reminding myself that my body does not need to be subdued, hidden, or conquered – it is a beautiful, wonder-filled work of art created by God. I am not a spiritual being trapped inside a fleshly body – my body is an intrinsic part of what it means for me to be the human God made me to be.
I am learning to listen to what my body tells me and understand what it’s saying, because it is by understanding my body that I understand myself, which is to understand the image of God in me. If I want to honor God, I have to love the body God gave me.