‘You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
I read this somewhere and it has been rattling around in my head ever since. Like any really good philosophical observation, it sends the mind wandering down many paths
My body’s a good one. It hasn’t let me down overall, though it is showing wear and tear after seven-plus decades of excellent service. It’s a body that hadn’t demanded much attention, and only complains when it’s not getting enough exercise or too much of the wrong kinds of food.
I think of my soul as residing in my body, and my musings about the connection between the two haven’t gone much beyond whether Hindus have the right idea, that the soul uses a body for a lifetime, then trades it in for another to continue its journey, much as one does a broken-down car. But the more I think about the quotation above, the less sufficient that answer to the body-soul connection becomes. Transmigration of souls may or may not turn out to be true, but it doesn’t address the question of the relationship of the soul to the body it is presently in.
I remember the last year of my father’s life, as he wasted away with congestive heart failure. His body became skeletal, his skin ashen and his eyes so large and sunken they seemed haunted. I remember thinking “this body can’t support life anymore,” and his soul was struggling to escape. Likewise when my late-husband Jim was in his last days, I felt the same thing. The moment I realized he was dead, I whispered my congratulations. Cancer never wins. The soul succeeds in escaping it. I knew what hard work his body had undertaken so his soul could have the only thing it needed—to be free.
Being in good health has kept my body-soul question at bay because so far they are still in sync. But what if I were debilitated by injury or disease? What happens to my soul then for the duration of this finite lifetime? What will my soul’s effort to escape be like if diminished capacity lasts for years? Who will I become? Would I be able to use my remaining time to grow my soul, or would I just get smaller? Would I have the strength to accept my body if I couldn’t travel, couldn’t write, couldn’t do the things that nourish me now, the things that present to the world the person I think I am
In his poem “The Oven Bird” (full text below), I Robert Frost ponders this predicament when he asks “what to make of a diminished thing.” I honestly don’t know. I hope I would be as resilient as my friend Marilyn, who after an injury had a lengthy residence in rehab and a painful, slow recovery of her ability to walk. She used the time to rethink her life purpose under those circumstances and decided it was to spread light and joy in a place that had precious little of either. Would I have the same strength?
Sometimes people don’t. Sometimes they decide, as my sons did, that their soul needs to get out early and give life another try in another place and time. I don’t judge anyone’s soul journey, but hope that mine will take me down a different path. The most I can hope for is that any diminishment of body is more than offset by a fresh blooming of soul, to make the rest of my life a different song, but a song nonetheless.
The Oven Bird—Robert Frost
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.