For most of my adolescent life I struggled with insomnia. When I was 23 I had my first baby. He kept me up all night. But I finally learned how to sleep!
Next week, I’ll turn 31. I have spent the last decade pushing my body to the point of total exhaustion. It hasn’t always been great for my body. But it has been great for my soul.
In our modern “educated” society, we are taught to avoid exhausting the body or allowing it to get worn out. Instead, we’re told, we should spend more energy using our brains. Because using the brain instead of the body (in other words, being “educated”) is freedom. Freedom from suffering, freedom from the mundane and boring, freedom from the baser realities of life.
And education certainly can be freeing. Learning to read and write opens up a whole new world— actually, countless worlds. Right now my oldest son is deep into his third adventure through the world of Narnia and it is a joy to watch! But an education is supposed to be mostly that— joy. Leisure. A gift.
The life of the mind is a wonderful gift. But we are not only minds. We are bodies. And our bodies are supposed to toil and suffer, to create and recreate, to work and to rest, and, eventually, to wear out and die. This is an unavoidable and incredibly important reality.
Now, people are beginning to recognize the importance of this reality in little ways. Like pointing out the negative effects of sitting at desks all day or being indoors all the time— people are beginning to recognize that the body needs to be used and not just left as an untouched vessel for the mind.
And yet, we still see, all around us, a desperate attempt to avoid physical toil— and, especially, the wear and tear that comes from physical toil. We use Amazon to avoid grocery trips. We use FaceTime to avoid visiting. We encourage adolescents to choose jobs which employ the use of their brain and not their bodies. We tell young wives to make use of their intellectual skills before falling pregnant. We buy creams and surgeries to reverse the effects of aging. And we buy robot vacuums to avoid sweeping.
What happens, eventually, is much worse than a stiff neck or a texting thumb. When we avoid physical toil as much as we can (or, even, merely dabble in it here and there for the “health benefits”) we become out of touch with our own mortality. We forget that we are going to die. We forget that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We forget… until we remember. And then that remembrance is sudden and painful and terrifying.
People of the old world were very much in touch with their mortality. And this humbled them— but it also gave them freedom. When you know you are vulnerable and weak and mortal then you are more ready to be taken care of, forgiven, and saved.
The life of the mind is a wonderful gift. But it can become a curse when it makes us think we are too good for the life of the body. We build our own little towers of Babel— attempts at immortality— attempts to avoid or destroy physical suffering forever. But we only find a much deeper and horrible suffering. It is the suffering of the philosopher. Why am I here and what is the point of it all?
Now, certainly, somebody should ask and answer those questions. They are very good questions. Philosophers are essential and so are their unique sufferings. But even the philosophers must embrace their humble humanity. And sometimes the answers to the questions come in the form of just doing stuff. Physically difficult stuff. Like rocking a baby all night long. At least, that’s what worked for me.
At the end of the day, Jesus, the greatest philosopher of all time, also made tables and chairs. Some people may say he did that in order to be relatable. And maybe that’s true. Or to allow Joseph the chance to teach Him something. And maybe that’s true too. But maybe there’s something good and healthy and holy about making tables and chairs, especially when you don’t have to.