This time of year, we get flooded by images of happy families—which are used to sell everything from snack foods to luxury cars.
Amidst this clamor of marketing, it’s easy to forget that connecting with others depends, not on purchasing things, but on human bodies.
In an era of social media and online marketplaces, we might be lulled into believing that relationships can be built without involvement of vulnerable, sensate bodies—just by clicking “like” or “purchase.” But electronic devices do not, so far, jack directly into our brains—they depend on eyes, ears and hands. And, lest we forget, online friends do not exist solely online—they enjoy flesh and blood lives in the real world.
There is a richness in body-to-body contact that instant messages, online profiles and even video calls cannot match. Nothing electronic rivals the feel of one organism near another.
Physical contact bonds us in ways mere words and images cannot, and it begins before birth—in fact, that is when it is most profound. Even “test tube babies” develop within the warm, moist, vibrant interior of human females. Soon after, mother-infant bonding depends critically on touch. Years later, some of our most trusted relationships are with sexual partners.
It is the body, not the mind, that relates.
Social contact is important, but the body relates in other ways. Our tissues function via nonstop communication. Nerve cells chatter constantly—hormones synchronize body systems with cycles of life (as day moves into night, child grows into adult or sexual interest waxes and wanes)—immune cells coordinate defense with more signals than a modern army. On the smallest scale, deep within cells, chemical pathways responds to changing needs.
Meanwhile, in the ecosphere, the body relates to other lifeforms with every breath and meal. We need plants to convert the sun’s power into energy-rich biomolecules. We rely on bacteria to decompose dead life and provide fertilizer to plants. The body depends on the entire world, which is another way of saying it relates with that world.
The body is no more independent from the rest of life than a leaf is independent of the rest of the tree.
There is yet one more way in which the body is relational—it relates to the mind. We needn’t bother here with the mind-body question, about the “true” nature of mind relative to body. In day-to-day life, we see and sense our bodies as if from a slight remove, and we experience our minds within them. This is the basis for our mind-body relationship, which is often very dysfunctional.
The first step in healing our relationship with our bodies is recognizing that one exists. Then, as we pay attention to how we interact with our bodies, we can begin to offer them more gentleness and appreciation. As we relate less aggressively toward our human forms, we will find it easier to treat other people and the ecosphere more wisely.
In social, biological and ecological terms—the body is a relational being, and all these layers of relationship influence each other. Human life is about relating, and health is about relating with affection and care.
And at every level, it is the body that relates.
Author: Will Meecham
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photo: Flickr/Kalle Gustafsson