The Purpose of a Physical Body

I took the first swim lesson of my life last week, at age twenty-five. Water and my family have issues. It definitely doesn’t like us and we’re not sure we like it outside of a cool glass on a hot day. No one in my family knows how to swim. An uncle I never met drowned at sixteen trying to learn how. My mother has had some incident with water on every vacation I can remember. And I, personally, am haunted by memories of failed swim tests, water day at summer camp, lifeguards running after me with bright orange life jackets after I run out of excuses to avoid water day, and all of my classmates calling out in seeming unison, “You can’t SWIM?”

Ah. No good answer to that question as an awkward thirteen-year-old.

The mortification of not being able to swim was so ingrained in me that I couldn’t stay vulnerable long enough to even learn. 

No longer.

I’ve been growing increasingly fearless for some years now, but in particular my newfound depth of happiness from the past two weeks has given me an intense appreciation for my body and the experiences it provides: feeling rain moisten my skin, sun warm my body, breezes tousle my hair. Feeling exertion when I run, intimacy when I hold a friend’s hand, and allowing the flavor of different foods to macerate in my mouth.

I used to hate eating food. All food. Never had any eating disorders or cared about body image, just disliked food so much that all my nourishment came from force-feeding myself. Maybe it had something to do with the two horrendous pregnancies where everything that went down signed up for the return trip. I don’t know. 

I now love eating. In a simple way, not an indulgent one. I even love cooking. I sliced through my fingernail with a dull knife chopping vegetables last night and even this discomfort I don’t mind. The problems associated with having a physical body always outweighed the benefits; sickness, soreness, sleep-deprivation, dehydration from morning sickness that landed me in the hospital. Periods. 

My faith teaches that physical bodies are a great privilege but I’d never considered this until last week. Somehow our physical bodies allow us to grow spiritually and emotionally in ways we couldn’t otherwise. In his talk “Things as They Really Are,” Elder Bednar explained, “If the adversary cannot entice us to misuse our physical bodies, then one of his most potent tactics is to beguile you and me as embodied spirits to disconnect gradually and physically from things as they really are. In essence, he encourages us to think and act as if we were in our premortal, unembodied state.”

This one quote explained so much of my life. Part of my personality disorder is that I experience periods of prolonged dissociation. That’s when you feel like you’re watching a movie of your life, unable to change the ending, instead of actively living it. I used to cut myself to escape this disembodied feeling, to convince myself that I am real, that life is real. 

It never worked anyways. Now that I’m able to identify this feeling, I don’t have to resort to those measures. I can enjoy a nice meal, listen to the birds outside my window (Connecticut has plenty), or learn how to swim so I can keep up with my three-year-old this summer. 

So there I was last week, swimming in my first swim lesson. It wasn’t pretty, but I was doing it, no flotation device or anything. Half laps and full laps. Because I’m not ashamed of learning something I have never been taught and because I am celebrating my body and its capabilities. 

Somewhere in my chest, teenage Veena is crying tears of relief. Because those is another privilege of my body: tears.


One thought on “The Purpose of a Physical Body

  1. I really love this. I also never learned to swim well and now that I’m learning to choose fear less, I’m enjoying trying things I used to avoid like the plague, like water slides. What a treat it is to nurture that fearlessness for my kids at the same time too. My fearful elder son and I went down a water slide together last week as we sang our RL Lullaby and laughed so much. What a joy.

    This is inspiring me to apply the same openheartedness to another formerly fearful area, horseback riding. I used to ride a lot but it was a hobby totally doused in fear, and if there’s any creature adept at sensing and reacting to fear, it’s horses. What fun it will be to try that again with less fear.

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