Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In the Flesh

Imagine that you are locked in a room, and have been for your entire life. As you would expect, there are no doors, and there is only one solitary window that affords you vision of the outside world. From this window you can occasionally see the people that walk by far below, but you can't ever communicate meaningfully with any of them. Naturally, you are very lonely. What you want more than anything is to get out of your cell and join the throngs of people that mill around outside, but it would satisfy you to have a visitor, or even to have a mere conversation. But all these things are impossible, as your captivity is absolute and eternal.

This metaphor epitomizes the human condition. Like our imaginary prisoner, each of us dwells in a place from which we can never depart. This room is impenetrable from both the inside and the outside, and no one has ever visited that of another. If you haven't guessed already, I speak of our bodies, the figurative cells that hold our being captive.

Like any prison, the body's inhabitant wants nothing more than to escape, or to transcend the limitations and boundaries imposed by the flesh. In fact, this is true of all limitations, whether corporeal or otherwise. After all, why do we fall in love? For what reason is escapist literature so popular? Why does jealousy even exist? The only answer is that we long to be free of the shackles of self-hood, to exist across boundaries, to be another. 

To put it another way, mankind has an insatiable lust for the "other". We are discontented with the our current state of affairs, and we want more than anything to be somewhere else. But that is the problem: we can never be somewhere else, because we are always "here". This paradox, exemplified by the body, means that we will never fulfill our desire to transcend barriers in a meaningful way. We can never get "there", because "there" is dangled in front of us like a carrot would be to a donkey.

At least until death, there is no way for us to experience this "other", as our body limits us. What's more, Mormons believe that this can't even happen after death, as we suppose that we have "spirit-bodies" which not even the grave can part us from. Does this leave us with any hope? In fact, it does.

To see this, consider a thought experiment with me: what would existence be like without any bodies, spirit or otherwise? This world would have no limitations, boundaries or absolute definitions, and there wouldn't be a "you" or a "me", but only a cosmic unified "I". Further, there would be no separate things at all - just being, undivided and uncategorized. Now, imagine you were this "I". How would you pass the time? What would you think about? What would you do? If you have a hard time answering these questions, it is because it is impossible to do so - a state of being without an "other" lacks anything interesting or meaningful. For where is this "I"'s happiness?  Nowhere, because there is no "other" to be happy about.

The grand truth of corporeality is this: bodies allow us to be happy. It is precisely because of the limitation and finiteness of embodiment, the fact that there is something "other" than us, that we can have any sense of joy, affection, or even hilarity. Of course, embodiment also allows the aforementioned negative experiences. But I believe that it is worth it, for the body allows us a consolation. What, you may ask, is this boon? Nothing less than love.

What do I mean? Well, love allows us to have the best of both worlds, of both unlimited being and boundedness. It permits us to connect to someone else in an almost transcendental way, allowing us to stretch our being little by little into another. But most importantly, it lets us create an "extended self", existing in another's body while still encapsulated in your own. After all, think of the couple that has been married 50 years - if their marriage was successful, they know each other as they know themselves. They've told each other everything, and they know how the other thinks. They are one, in every way that matters.

It turns out that Genesis was right: it is not good that man should be alone. Because of the "other", and the boundaries of skin that ensures it exists, we can be happy, enjoy ourselves, love, and be loved.

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