Keeping body and soul together

Experiencing existential angst?  Uneasy about your own mortality?  Freaked out by strange, surrealistic cinema?  No problem.  Try some extra-strength Tylenol.

The media have taken special note of a recent article by researchers at the University of British Columbia, published in the respected journal Psychological Science.  Author Daniel Randles and his colleagues already knew of studies showing acetaminophen to be helpful not only with physical pain (e.g., headaches) but social pain (e.g., being rejected by friends).  So they wondered: would the same be true of existential suffering, like thoughts of death and other anxiety-provoking challenges to a meaningful life?

The short answer is yes.  They asked research participants to do unsettling things, like write about their own death, or watch a disturbing video (by David Lynch, if anybody’s wondering).  Participants who took Tylenol (as versus a mere sugar pill) showed less apparent need to cope with the experience.

Randles, a bit surprised at his own findings, concluded that acetaminophen can “make people numb to the worry of thinking about their deaths.”  That’s a bit of an overstatement, given the nature of the study.  But it raises some interesting questions, and not just for philosophers and theologians.

In an article for the Atlantic Monthly, physician James Hamblin wonders if we really know enough about the cognitive effects of Tylenol.  We’re less surprised, of course, at the effects of the more heavy-duty painkillers.  I still remember vividly the way my father, recovering from hip-replacement surgery, actively hallucinated on Vicodin.  He saw and grasped at things that weren’t there.  But Tylenol?  We pop them like candy, assuming that they’ll only affect our headache and nothing more.

Randles’ findings and others like it suggest that, from a neurological standpoint, pain is pain.  The causes may differ.  We may give different meanings to physical, emotional, social, and existential suffering.  But some of the same neural processes may be involved in each.

Do we tend, sometimes unknowingly, to divide experience into neat little boxes of physical, mental, and spiritual?  Body versus soul?  As Joel Green has amply demonstrated, the concept of a disembodied soul isn’t truly biblical.  Humans, created for relationship with each other and with God, are fundamentally embodied beings, a fact which the biblical authors seem to take for granted.

In other words, we exist in these bodies of ours by God’s creative intent and design.  Maybe that sounds obvious.  But we too often take our bodies for granted, or find ourselves at odds with them, as if they were annoying relatives that had to be tolerated.

On any given day, I can be ambivalent about bodily existence.  One moment, I’m fascinated by a lecture on the intricacies of sense perception, thinking, “That’s amazing!” and admiring God’s handiwork.  The next moment, I’m complaining about tiredness, or pain, or just plain clumsiness.  (If I want, I can medicate the first two, but not the third.  Not yet, anyway.)

We were created to have bodies, though they may stumble and wither.  And as believers, we hope not for an eternity as disembodied spirits, but for bodily resurrection into a creation healed of its brokenness and sin.

If we really, truly understood and accepted this, would anything change about our attitude toward life in general, or the Christian life in particular?