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The Powerful and Limited Body

Listen to the human body's memories and teachings.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire on June 02, 2013

logo_avvenireA new understanding of the human body can increase employment and improve the economy. Real bodies, our bodies, are ignored while people adore, praise and worship fake human figures. Young models are consumed as products while old, sick and weary people are rejected by society. Great enterprises and the financial market can collapse due to the exploitation of the human body.

Any institution that disregards people and their bodies works against human dignity

Farms and factories entailed tough yet human-centered activities; colleagues could interact in person.

Today, workers, customers, suppliers and colleagues often don't know each other personally. Likewise, directors no longer meet with their employees (apart from the occasional video-conference). In these companies, the work force is comprised of numbers, records and costs, but not people.

When workers lose their corporeal individuality, they become no more than mere tools.

An accurate evaluation of a person presumes contact. An evaluator needs to see people's faces, the color in their cheeks and the glitter of their eyes, and to smell their scent. A handshake is also important; a trembling or sweaty hand often influences personal impressions. Headhunters do not treat job applicants like real people; they are just numbers on a computer and potential resources to be used. They exclude candidates before even meeting with them. Human nature relies on human bodies.

No philosophical or theological theory defines Man better than the human body itself. Human beings are as fragile as a grass blade and made “a little lower than the angels” (psalm 8). The Song of Songs praises the human body while the Ecclesiastes disparages it. A true understanding of the body and human relations must take both approaches into account. Horizons seen in a dusk sky are hidden at dawn, like the body just before it ceases to be. Human nature is ambiguous; we are neither bodiless immortal angels nor mere grass on the ground. 

The five senses are as important as the body itself. True fulfilling human encounters activate them all, including taste. Members of a community – family, church, company – should eat together often to avoid crises. Don Abbondino, the director, and Agnese, the worker of a company, rarely sit at the same table. Although an arduous task, companies should guarantee shared business meals.

Every human body has limits, which reveal both individuality and reciprocity. Who has never sent an email or an SMS containing words that one wouldn't use in person? Written phrases like “I love you” or “leave me alone” are quite common. The same expressions said to someone while looking into their eyes and – consider the first phrase – holding their hands are much more compelling. People must accept their corporeal limits and build a new relationship in every stage of their body's life. They will then be able to bring about a new social pact for a healthier society, which will guarantee welfare States that are economically sustainable. Bodies grow old, weary and eventually die; those who do not accept this natural process are chronically ill. A physical sickness should not be rejected; we must welcome it as a part of our lives. By embracing our human vulnerability, wounds (vulnus) and the inevitability of death, we will be able to follow after S. Francis and say, “our Sister Bodily Death”.

It is not only the children who learn about the world through bodily sensations.

Knowledge of things comes from touch. Today, people do not use their bodies and hands to learn and to work, which results in the crisis of labor. An intellectual is only able to create through physical work; toil is inevitable to conceive new concepts.

People can foster a trust-filled civilization if they reconcile themselves to their bodies' natural maturation. Vows, like marriage, represent a commitment to someone's body; they include the blessings and wounds that engagement my cause. Loyalty must be embodied to be true.

People need to cry together and embrace each other to reach reconciliation; telephone and Skype calls or legal forgiveness letters aren't enough. When Jacob and Esau overcame their sever hostility, wounds and misunderstandings, they “wept together”.

Cultures that flourished again after decline had to first reconcile themselves to human limitations and death. Likewise, the Risen One bore the stigmata of His wounds.

We must come to terms with our bodies to learn the old art of true human relations. This art grows more rare, and very few can teach it. There is an increasing ignorance about relationships, particularly among managers and directors. Women, mothers in particular, know both the limits and the extraordinary powers of the the human body. Nurses are also body specialists; they establish a relationship with patients through touch. Once a doctor healed my sickness by coming to see me. He explained to me, “The doctor is the first cure for any sickness.” Nurses and nuns should be members of hospitals' executive offices. The latter are inspired by their mission to recognize the patients' blessings, which exist besides their wounds. Instead, hospital directors usually don't see the patients, let alone touch them. Let us learn from our corporeal nature. Each person's body has many things to teach us.

A few are beautiful, others forgotten, but all our essential for our well-being.

Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial

Translated by Cristian Sebok



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