Wednesday, September 12, 2018
(Picture from Youtube body painting artist Johannes Stoetter)
“Do not explain your philosophy. Embody it.” –Epictetus
I name objects.
Names construct objects.
The corpus arises from an infinity of sensory, and sensational material.
Body. One of my names. One of the names for you.
My body: With two words I create and own this object.
My language, my naming construes and constructs ‘my’ and ‘body.’
As object: I claim ownership of this body self, and that separates this body from
As object, my body may be subject to commoditization, to consumption by
As object my body may acquire multiple social labels and cultural bar codes.
My body may be packaged, handled, used, returned, and delivered in multiple
My body may become damaged or diseased or discarded or denigrated or
My body may die alone, and with its death, the death of my other, given names.
This body will never resurrect; will deconstruct into the nameless infinitude
Namer and name—this duality—narrates many stories: of my ‘body’ and ‘me,’ of me and you, of me versus you; of those afterlife kingdoms of godly real estate owned by Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, Bahؘa, Krishna, Elohim.
Delivered, cleaved, swaddled, handed to our mothers, we also rock in the cradle of that capricious embrace of mother country and culture—those who cut our cords and read our palms. Symbiotic, nascent, wordless–we emerge howling our first vowels into a blanket of language. Named, we will live our lives separate even from those whom we love most. We can have no relationship to anyone or anything that is not separated by its own name; and yet by names we call—by, to, and for each other, which makes us familiars. And the richness of the world in which we will eat and think and meander and work and dream depends on words. Underprivileged children hear thirty million fewer words than privileged children. Language is the most important currency of the human world. And we are word-woven into story, our story within a family’s story, within larger nested stories of neighborhoods, states, nations, and the planet.
The exquisiteness with which language articulates and specifies a body’s experiences of the world is matched by an equally powerful dullness with which one can perceive the body’s living interior with its pumps and bellows, with its pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, with its harvesting and waste removal systems, with the moving of limbs in complex choreographies, with the neuronal tick-tick-booms of thinking.
We do not know our indwelling microbiome colonies, their winds and weathers, the degree to which the leg must bend, and with what force to heft us from the bed at morning’s behest or the inconvenient dictate of the bladder. We experience our inner world of organ systems as foreign as any lands or peoples we have never met, and with whom we do not share a common language. I preside blind, deaf, and with limited tactility over a mysterious body-world I call mine.
Perception is the province of poets; introspection the bailiwick of psychologists, philosophers, memoirists, and navel gazers. But the details of interoception lie behind closed doors, barred by a brain who reserves its energetic hustling, with more, or less sensitive equipment, to the business of thinking and feeling and doing and belonging to its village.
The notion of dualism derives from my ability to name, and from my inability to feel my cogitation so as to explicitly describe my interoceptions: my emotions, the processes of my organs, including the incredibly sophisticated workings of my brain.
Because I am separated from the details of my inner workings—this filtering necessary so that I can pay attention to what most needs my attention—I experience the inner self, including what I call ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ as differentiated from my body. My body seems material, and the unknowable inner world seems, by inference, immaterial.
If I experience my spirit or soul or mind as immaterial, then the illusion of a heaven or afterlife seamlessly and logically unfolds. As do the mysterious narratives of eternity.
In our lives we occupy multiple roles as expressions of our multiplicity of selves. At least two prominent selves, as John Haidt analogizes, in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, constitute both the large bodied “elephant” of feelings, desires, and the complex and involuntary running of our biological systems, as well as the much smaller “rider” on that elephant, who sometimes justifies, sometimes tries to persuade, and sometimes succeeds in disciplining the behavior of the elephant. Haidt suggests that we often suffer from an illusion of rational decision making when we really create stories to justify what our “elephant” wants.
In a more pedestrian than mystical sense we straddle the worlds of knowledge and experience every day. We know that the quality of ‘delicious’ belongs to a chocolate ice cream sundae, or to great sex, or to loving deeply, but we would rather experience ice cream, sex, and love, than to merely know about them abstractly.
“Those who know do not say; those who say do not know.”
When the Master entered, they asked him exactly what the words meant.
Said the Master, “Which of you knows the fragrance of a rose?”
All of them knew.
Then he said, “Put it into words.”
All of them were silent. (Taoist Story)
We accumulate all kinds of knowledge, including some knowledge about experience: What it is like to have a baby, to parachute from a plane, to go off to college, or to interview for a job. Mindfulness meditation experts call our constant cogitation ‘monkey chatter.’ The refreshment of being in the moment, of full presence, relies on opening our eyes, our ears, our noses, and our sense of touch, to the incoming colors, sounds, fragrances and breezes in the surround. Without naming. Without objectifying. As much as possible for us human language junkies.
But we love poetry too, for it circles, titillates, and tantalizes us by producing its own kind of experience, one that stirs those impressions our senses and our emotions offer up of the world, while incorporating ideas to compel our attention, shift our perspective, or advance our appreciation.
Ahs and Ahas.
When we engage our senses fully, we vitalize our world, with openness and curiosity. When someone gently presses our faces into the roses, says ‘rose,’ says, ‘mmm,’ asks, ‘can you smell that? Breathe in deeply,’ then thought marries feeling. Naming unites and separates.
If naming gives us duality, and duality the separateness of self from all others, then our human differentiations by hue of skin, by shape of feature, by gender, by culture or ethnic background are vulnerable to the potential meanings assigned to them, and to the parameters of our relationships with others. In our world mere differentiation, by one characteristic or another, apparently suffices—with doses of adult ‘stranger danger,’ or economic greed, or power mongering–to justify the application of different statuses; to justify differences in rights and privileges; to sanction exploitation, subjugation, even violence. The powerful assign status differences which apply to bodies, human bodies; our human bodies.
Those who name the recipients of privilege hold power. Those who lay claim to applying meanings associated with differences hold power and extend this power to ownership over the bodies of others—where those bodies can travel, how they may be treated, whether they may be dominated, subjugated, negatively objectified, or denied opportunity.
We can even justify poor treatment of animals by claiming that we are more intelligent, have a superior language, that because we appear to be built with greater complexity, we are kings of the planet. We have better bodies. We have talking bodies.
The social, professional, and cultural contexts for how we treat each other’s bodies hold the structures, policies, traditions, and etiquette for that which we deem appropriate or inappropriate, as defined by a boundary or crossing a boundary, as violating or servicing.
Clothing, hats, scarves, habits or robes, decorations of the body or hair growth, certain movements or expressions are all at one remove from the body itself. These are the immediate expressions—the shells, the fur, the feathers and the variations in ambulation with eye gaze up or down or retracted or piercing—that clue others to this body and its interior rooms and social affinities.
When my mother-in-law lay dying, the hospice nurses came and repositioned her, massaging cream into her hands and feet. She had not spoken in sentences for years, the most prominent decline her loss of words, and then of the meaningful use of her hands for holding her books, hugging her friends and relatives, and eating on her own.
Still, we spoke with her, caught her up on all the details of family laments and successes, talking her into that final silence. Even when she could not name herself.
All cultures with which I have any familiarity utilize rituals to prepare the bodies of their dead. It would be unthinkable to throw a human body out like trash; and we feel horrified by the appearance of mass graves in a genocidal or maniacal war.
Ritual accompanies the treatment of human bodies, dying or dead. We dress or wrap or shroud bodies accordingly and this preparation brings reassurance and comfort to those most closely linked by family, by shared experiences, by love.
What the bodies of our beloveds have worn or touched or lit lamps to read, have meaning beyond their lives as heirlooms, mementos, legacy pieces, reminders, holders of memory. In some sense, and however briefly in the ascent of generations, we poetically immortalize the bodies of our dead.
“We ought to think that we are one of the leaves of a tree,
and the tree is all humanity.
We cannot live without the others, without the tree.”
Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973) Spanish cellist and composer
Bodies of the living connect as do leaves on a tree, each a unique expression of the sunlit climbing, branching, and rooting of the whole. When we construct thoughts or beliefs about status differences, we separate ourselves too much, we cease to feel our connectedness; we die a little bit. But when we sense each other’s radiance along energetic pathways that circulate and intersect, we can lift and be lifted by others.
“If you’re standing at the bottom of a hill with friends, it will appear less steep and easier to climb than if you are alone,” writes research psychologist Lisa Feldman Barret, in her book How Emotions Are Made (pg. 71). “If you grow up in poverty, a situation that leads to chronic body-budget imbalance and an overactive immune system, these body-budgeting problems are reduced if you have a supportive person in your life. In contrast, when you lose a close, loving relationship and feel physically ill about it, part of the reason is that your loved one is no longer helping to regulate your (body) budget. You feel like you’ve lost a part of yourself because, in a sense, you have.”
Words have power to obscure truth as well as to illuminate; to blur and to distinguish. Try the word, ‘race.’ Since the rise of slavery in this country, this word, race, has regrettably differentiated our bodies, not only by skin color, but by associated meanings glued to this epidermal variation. It has blurred our connectedness intellectually. It has barred our connectedness by the application of differences in opportunity and treatment. We have treated our collective as composed of different races, with powerfully different implications for social equity, while academics–anthropologists, sociologists, and biologists–know we are one human race:
“. . . More recently, molecular techniques have developed to examine genetic differences between individuals and populations, including karyotypes providing chromosomal number and patterns, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) hybridization, protein sequences, and nuclear and mitochondrial base sequences from ancient and modern DNA. From all this evidence, it is clear that populational, but not racial, differences do exist within the human species. Race should not be equated with ethnicity, which has a sociological meaning. Ethnicity is a self-described category that has three components—ancestry, language, and culture—that all have affinities to certain ancestral groups.” (Read more: http://www.biologyreference.com/Ar-Bi/Biology-of-Race.html#ixzz4xkJ7f99b)
In their book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, John Marzluff and Tony Angell write, “The ability to transmit culture through social learning equips social species like humans with a dual inheritance system. We obtain many physical traits, actions, and behaviors from the arrangement of nucleic acids on our chromosomes—that is, through inheritance of genes from our parents. But we also inherit a vast array of cultural traits from our society through social learning. Some researchers call the social units we learn memes. . .At any point in time, human culture is composed of memes that reflect genetic, individually learned, and socially transmitted information.” (pg. 15)
Our micro-absorption into consciousness of genetic and socially transmitted information surfaces for reflection through individual learning, and it is here that we can all utilize our capacities for positive influence. As mentors, teachers, friends, parents, sponsors, doctors, and so forth, we can all shine the beam of our attention on someone who will benefit by such encouragement and expansion through relationship.
We can talk to others about injustice, inequality, inequity. We can validate complaints of abuse, exploitation or discrimination. We can stand together awakened. We can take our awakening to the streets, to our extended families, friends, neighborhoods, workplaces, as well as to publications and polls.
We can bear witness. We can be willing to hold sorrow, rage, frustration, and determination in the face of obstacles, whether they are current and societal or their residual introjects that emerge as self-limiting narratives.
As a therapist, also trained in Ericsonian hypnosis, I am informed by the power of word repetition to hypnotize and to suggest. Like a chant, every time we discuss the “race” issue, we instill within our minds the fiction that we live in a world of different races, and assigned meanings associated with that fiction get strengthened. Repeatedly, discussing the injustices done to those whose bodies have darker skin or whose features, including gender, do not look like the bodies of those in power, as a “racial” problem, strengthens the unintended consequence of embedding the misconstrued idea that people are differentiated by race.
This false notion that plural human races exist has fueled discriminatory differentiation; has been used to substantiate prejudicial treatment of some humans by others based upon trumped-up proof, based on nefarious research that there are superior/inferior races. Those characteristics which visually differentiate us, do not in fact differentiate us into races. We must address inequality and inequity. We must close the thirty-million-word gap, and all other opportunity gaps.
But our language will need to e-race ‘race’ in the process. This is not color blindness, not a refusal to listen, nor to trivialize the sufferings caused by prejudice and hate. As long as we continue to talk about ‘race’ relations, we embed ever more strongly, a set of negative associations threaded through the prevailing power-majority of the light skinned, that have historically ascribed lesser statuses—in intelligence, talents, contributions, appearance, and so on—to persons whose skin is dark or whose features bear resemblance to peoples from a number of other continents.
Lack of social, educational, and/or economic equity and equality, within the country, state, town and neighborhood where one grew up has a profound impact on the degree of ease or difficulty with which any human being enters doors of opportunity in the present, and/or psychologically has the resilience and confidence to knock. Ancestral genes have no direct bearing. As Ta Nehisi Coates so eloquently writes, “Racism is the parent of race,” as an issue, not the other way around.
In an article picked up by Flipboard, an online digest of articles on many topics, a piece from wired.com by Nitasha Tiku, demonstrates how intelligence and education can coexist with ignorant bias. She quotes from a blog run by a Google employee: “Blacks are not equal to whites. Therefore the ‘inequality’ between these races is expected and makes perfect sense.” WIRED was not able to confirm the identity of the employee.”
At the core of discrimination, subjugation, inequality and inequity lies an inherited belief among the powerful and the ignorant that some kinds of bodies are better than others and are therefore entitled to take more of the resources, more of the available opportunities, and to deny others in the process. Of course, way beyond the scope of this essay, many factors foment greater or lesser degrees of these outrages. Fears of war, competition for scarce resources, fears of losses—land, income, a way of life, the freedom to pursue one’s religion or traditions–and pure greed, are examples.
A body I have never met, different than my body, puts me on alert. My curiosity may hold hands with wonder, or clutch fear in a death grip. When we encounter a person’s differences, often visually at first, those differences link immediately and unconsciously to anticipatory anxiety about what other differences might disadvantage us. We fear experiencing incompatibility, or competition for dominance—in tradition, language, belief, values, and behavior.
Affiliations by ethnicity or religion or national origin have meaning for us. Parts of our personal identities get constituted by what is familiar, customary, and includes beliefs, affects and behaviors associated with the reinforcement of those potent identities. The performing of specific rituals, the eating of preferred foods, the use of turns of phrase and associated idiosyncratic language or references, as well as music, fashion and other art forms, all contribute to a sense of belonging.
The construction of identities, by virtue of our embeddedness and embodiment within communities that look like us, speak like us, dress like we dress, believe and behave like us, proves problematic in larger conglomerate cultures where the prevailing psychology, belief system and behavior treat some bodies, and some communities, as less worthy than others.
The epitome of hostility toward some bodies, makes them invisible—untouchable, inaudible, ignorable entirely. This is the societal analog of homicide. To kill off another human being’s presence; to make them virtually nonexistent in one’s own world. Those with marginalized bodies either recede into the shadows, deliberately hide, or rebel.
There’s a powerful episode on an Australian Netflix show called, ’Wentworth,’ about the governing and inmate populations in a woman’s prison. The former governor of the prison, Joan, now a murderess inmate, is temporarily shunned by all the women. Isolated, she has no power and no one to influence. An isolate is in a dangerously disconnected position, without associates for protection, collective bargaining or reciprocally beneficial arrangements.
Preferred identities, while important to our sense of who we are, can become aggressively dominant and eschew participation in the larger arms of a broader and more complex community comprised of many subgroups. There is currently a counter tension between the desirability and comfort of belonging that comes with the affiliation afforded by preferred identities (such as African American, or Asian American or European American, etc.) and the thrust toward globality with its deemphasis on identities that describe limited common denominators, even when those denominators. When a common denominator like skin color has no more association with discriminatory practices and lack of access to positive social networks from birth, perhaps the tension will resolve.
When no negative associations are brought to a meeting of people whose bodies have prominently different distinctions, what can happen? A woman I know, Rosie Russell, in her mid-fifties and light skinned, traveled to visit a relative in a small city in Sierra Leone, one of the poorest African countries. She brought soccer balls to poor villages outside the city. All the children ran gleefully toward her, calling her “opoto” and touching her light skin. Within about five minutes they were all playing ball and joking and laughing. She told me that most of these children had rarely, if never seen a light skinned person. The main mode of transportation outside of walking, were a few bicycles and the occasional bus. In spite of looking intriguingly different, Rosie neither scared nor disgusted the children. They had no preconceived notions about her and some joyful bonding happened quickly. The children allowed themselves to be informed about Rosie by experiencing their interactions with her, and she them.
In a context of curiosity, engagement, and wonderment there is only the miracle of particularity; the strangely different as attracting, and interesting. In this context, free from fear, from greed, from negative objectification, we can find appreciation and connection possible.
Bodies are fancy, miraculous, surprising, with ‘mini brains’ learning and training everywhere in satellite stations of the gut, the muscles; and memories residing like citizens of this complex body-country even to the most outlying regions of fingertip or hair follicle, telling their stories of delight or trauma, of strength or overuse, of triumph or breakdown.
When my body meets your body, I want to figure out how to orient myself to you. I may already have a prescribed role—as your potential therapist, your colleague, your social acquaintance, or your fellow rider on the bus—so whatever concepts allow me to place you within or outside my realm of experience help me scribe my place beside you. I want to discover who you are, at least a little bit, so I can discover who we are to each other, at least a little bit.
On page 233 of his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt writes, “All human beings today are the products of a co-evolution of a set of genes (which is almost identical across cultures) and a set of cultural elements (which is diverse across cultures, but still constrained by the capacities and predispositions of the human mind). . . We are out for our own personal gain but tempered by our impetus to promote the group with which we identify.“ Haidt says, we are “not mere apes. . .we are also part bee.”
As eloquent human beings, with neuronal and imaginative plasticity, we must find, beyond apes or bees, that capability–sometimes found in animals living in the wild as well as in domestic households– of loving beyond shell or fur or hoof or paw.
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997), Ethnic Albanian Roman Catholic nun
Bodies develop over time. Some bodies are genetically and anatomically male or female, and some bodies express genetic variation; but beyond the organic assignments of pregnancies and nursing to women, and mostly the greater size and strength to males on average, it is the gradual sculpting of prerogatives, privileges, realms of knowledge and congregation that generate, not only limitations, but cruel differences in social status, in access to ownership of goods, services, voice, vote, turf, and occupation, not to forget health. It is the meta-level umbrella of discriminatory, disrespectful, and corrupt meanings, values and practices that attach to and pervert our different strengths.
Our personal pronouns in the English language hypnotically emphasize a binary view of genders. The meaning of gender results from a co-construction of language and culture. Until recently, aside from the term ‘gender queer,’ we had no mainstream language for a third or alternate gender identity. The term ‘non-binary’ (female non-binary, male non-binary) had not entered our vocabulary, yet for the Juchitán village of Oaxaca, Mexico, Muxes, a third gender, hold a social role of importance.
In an interview with NOWNESS.com, Ivan Olita, a Los Angeles based Italian director says, “Though Juchitán is not the paradise of tolerance it might seem, and there are still episodes of discrimination, the Muxes are absolutely part of the city’s cultural landscape. They are cherished by the people of the village and most families see having a Muxe as a blessing, especially since they rarely marry and will most likely take care of their elders. . .
Juchitán Muxes do not need to be dressed as women to be considered such. It is simply a person that is born male but displays certain female characteristics, or some of each, and fills a certain role between men and women, a third gender. The whole dressing thing is not really relevant, it is more about the social role they play.”
In his documentary, Olita makes the point that in the ancient language of Zapotec, “la-ave” refers to another person without the bifurcation of “him” or “her.” This changed after the Spanish conquistadors.
Muxes do not wish to change their bodies as do many transgendered individuals in the United States. Muxes have an integrated sense of their (anatomically male) bodies housing characteristics defined as typically belonging to females. In contrast, the transgendered experience generally includes an experience of disintegration between embodiment and internal sensibility. To fix the problem and create a sense of personal integration some people choose to alter embodiment hormonally and surgically. In a sense, many transgendered persons still experience life in a context of male/female bifurcation and want to have their gender identity consistent with their embodiment.
From an article in Zeit Magazin Nr. 1/2018 29. Januar 2018 by Von Annett Heide, we read: “Last November, Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled that official documents must add a third gender choice, such as ‘other’ or ‘various,’ arguing that the lack of such a choice is discriminatory. It was a revolutionary ruling. . .’Societal acceptance cannot be mandated by a court ruling, but it is a step in the right direction,’ said Vanja, the plaintiff in the case, who was supported by the campaign Dritte Option, or ‘Third Option.’”
The article discusses the case of a person whose sexual indeterminacy at birth results in a series of sex assignment surgeries which one can only see as butchery now; as the result of the idea that a human being is required to be either male or female, and perhaps the associated notion that psychological adjustment to an atypical presentation of embodiment would be impossible.
As tempting as it is to assign blame to those doctors, they were operating within societal directives and beliefs about characteristics a body must have to thrive and to fit in. New ideas and ways of thinking, just like new developments in technology, in energy resources and life sciences, in literature and art, thrive within historical periods where opportunity, imagination, and fomentation co-occur and disseminate through media and other sources of accessible information. To sensitize ourselves to others who feel, because of maltreatment, disenfranchised, insulted, or devalued, we must first try on new lenses which only make sense when operating within a new or meta-perspective.
Intentionality must count for something.
Ignorance and innocence have something in common, until they part company at the crossroads of available sources of enlightenment, where the defiantly ignorant continue unwilling to consider new, non-traditional ideas, and the innocent move bravely and openly into the light. Newer ideas are, of course, not always better, but are generally more expansive and powerful because they better explain social and scientific phenomena that have previously been less well understood.
Intentionality and sensitivity come into play with a great deal of nuance in a recent situation at the NYU dining hall. According to some online editorials, there was a menu in celebration of Black History Month that included southern “soul” cuisine—ribs, collard greens, mac and cheese, as well as red Kool Aid and watermelon flavored water. Apparently, some vocal students and faculty found this culturally insensitive, highlighting negative associations, as well as excluding food from other places within the black diaspora.
Apparently, African American employees suggested the menu items and Aramark, the company subcontracted to supply the dining hall, made it available. Aramark later apologized for the offense, and according to what I read, an employee or two may have been fired or reassigned to a new location.
It seems most plausible that the employees who suggested the menu items had good intentions. But they were castigated and shamed by highly educated, perhaps more sophisticated persons at the university. Skin color may most obviously mark a divide in privilege in this country, but by no means constitutes the only divide. Bodies of the same skin color are not equally educated or sophisticated. If an ignorant person intends something meant to honor a holiday, then is not insensitive to call that person insensitive when there is an equal lack of understanding by both parties—the more and the less educated?
Perhaps we must generalize about insensitivities to push the agenda of greater social equity and equality at large. But within the larger groups of embodiment identifiers such as skin color or sex, there are a greater number of subsets of persons whose experience and awareness differ greatly. Conversation, not castigation, must bridge those gaps.
In our digitized world of bytes, we will no longer need to meet in the flesh. And perhaps our words and our worlds will come together differently, more abstractly, and with fewer hurdles than how we relate body to body. A client of mine, Sadie, imagined a presidential debate in which the candidates were hidden in booths and only their answers on debate questions were read out loud by the same third party, while a teleprompter transcribed their answers. Minus bodies, what kinds of ideas would garner the most votes?
Today, our images and words—instagrammed, snapchatted, texted, Facebooked, Linked, emailed, web-paged—suggest but flatten who we are. And 3D glasses, however the brilliance of their virtual technology, do not even begin to offer the energetic connections we can only experience embodied, hot and personal, in the skin. The beauty of in-the-moment virtual connectedness also distances. . .and at the extreme we can ‘ghost’ one another, kill off our connection by our sudden absence on a screen. And we adapt. We get used to nullifying others by never communicating with them again. And we get used to being annihilated as well. I worry about this desensitization; a diminishment in our ability to make hellos and goodbyes mean something.
Words of the flesh, embodied words, wear color and texture and punch. We can feel them, try them on, even imbibe them, and therefore experience empathic responses to them. Concrete language, as writers of fiction and poetry know, show rather than tell us. Abstract words like racism and sexism are conceptual, academic, head-in-the-clouds words. It is, in our real lives, more important than “are you or are you not racist,” to query how and in what ways you embody the stories and beliefs that have oppressive feet on the ground, and in what language you tell them; cast spells with them.
In my experience, people who hate, keep those they hate at a distance. Face to face proximity gives everyone a human face, breath, and a heartbeat. It becomes more difficult to keep hate alive when we gaze, face to face, into each other’s eyes and share our stories.
Religious and political affiliations prove very powerful aspects of identity and, unlike more loosely constructed friendship, school, sports or neighborhood groups, religions and political groups have more explicit beliefs which often get reiterated by speech, sermon and slogan. More emphasis on insider and outsider statuses apply including, at an extreme, shunning—an intragroup shaming and extruding of a former member to an unwelcome outsider status. It is hard to avoid the notion that for one to be right in one’s beliefs, others have to be wrong. When others are wrong they require saving, or slaying—figuratively or literally.
I may not be able to live in your skin, but I can live for some moments in your story.
The limits to all human understanding go back to abstract knowledge versus experience. Empathy is the bridge. We are amply supplied with mirror neurons and good listening skills. We can watch movies and read novels and suspend our disbelief so that we may enter a story and feel enveloped in the fabric of its crimes and triumphs.
Even in the publishing world today, it’s a no-no for writers to draw protagonists whose bodies are different than their bodies. But the world of science fiction and fantasy, in which characters have very different, imagined bodies, lies open to interpretation by anyone. We are equally free to explore the unknown apparently, but not allowed to claim ownership of any relevant ability to understand, let alone describe, the experiences of fictional bodies different than our own.
Objectification—the ownership of bodies of experience–both real and imagined, continues to separate and denigrate our humanity. We move further from what Martin Buber, a twentieth century philosopher explored in his book, I and Thou, translated from German into English in 1937. Relationships between people occur in a realm of “I and thou,” as opposed to “I and it.” And real relationships invite, not only our skins or our parts to talk to each other across differences but also our hearts. Relationships live, organismically, both beyond and encompassing of each component self.
Neural plasticity allows for simulating future possibilities. According to Lisa Feldman Barret, in How Emotions are Made, “simulations are your brain’s guesses of what’s happening in the world. . .Your brain uses past experiences to construct a hypothesis—the simulation—and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses.” (pg. 27)
From there we go on to make predictions, sometimes in error, and make course corrections along the way. Simulation underlies play as well as social engagement. My three- year-old granddaughter Lili hands me a stuffed dog. She wants me to make it talk so she can have a conversation with it. In my best ventriloquist’s canine-speak I begin a conversation, during which she tells me to be patient, gives me a kiss, and asks if I want to have a small piece of her toast. Of course, I do! We move on to the next activity without a further concern about this stuffed animal who, but a moment ago, moved and gestured and spoke animatedly. Our inter-mentality allowed for the co-creation of a mutually understood and felt imaginary experience.
The porosity of our beings offers us synergistic communication and understanding, insofar as it is possible for one human being to get inside the skin of another human being.
I do not accept that I cannot understand you. And it’s not the merit of having worked as a therapist for over thirty years. No, not at all. We achieve understanding because you allow me into your world, because I check in with you and ask, ‘So, is this how it is for you?’ And I ask you how things were done and what was expected and accepted in your family, your community, your religion, your culture, your nation, your time in history. And we work on the filigree of your experience until we have co-created a narrative that means something to you, at least in the present, in this room, in this conversation that we have produced together, inter-mentally. We are in each other’s minds and hearts through the pores in our skin and the portals of our eyes and ears.
When you speak of your life, your story is now happening through me, like a fish swims through water. The medium of me, of the river, are part of your story, the journey of the fish. And when we go to the movies together we suspend our disbelief and cry as if the unfolding of events in this story-world are happening to me and my beloveds, to you and your beloveds, and to our relationship because, in this moment, we are one sea, and in this one sea the story rises and falls.
That I cannot learn you or you cannot learn me is just an idea, like any other idea, and sometimes an intransigent belief that holds us back. Your body has lived experiences different from my own, and yet I feel sensations in my body that resonate with your story, as if, right now, as you tell me, it happens inside me, like a cellular infusion; homologous.
My mother is gone. My mother-in-law is gone. I think often these days that all ownership, even of my body’s address, yields to the surround wittingly, willingly, or anyway. I can but borrow and share what I have. We all dress in the dust of have nots for most of eternity.
Are we not all influencers and illuminators? Grassroots movements that resulted in the women’s marches, though the events happen on a singular day, illustrate the potency of word of mouth influence. There is someone whose opportunities—to realize their personal strengths and aptitudes and interests, as well as to accessing education, career, and other concrete paths—will benefit from a relationship with us. Reach out. Develop a friendship, a mentorship, a connection of some kind with someone who can benefit from whatever you have to offer. Help close the opportunity gap. Not only does bias damage our relationships with others, but also to ourselves. How easy we find it to hate our own bodies when they differ from cultural ideals: we are too dark skinned or too light, too fat, too short, too old, too disabled, our noses or lips or ears are too large, our heads are too small, our hair too curly or too straight. And from these self-limiting narratives we derive others: No one will love me, I will never succeed, I can’t, I can’t. . .
As poet ee cummings, wrote, “yes is a world.” Each body is a world. Every body is a ‘yes.’