“The body expresses the person” Saint John Paul II, Theology of the Body
Surrounded by piles of books, my ten-year-old held his head in his hands and blinked back tears. “I don’t know where to start!” And before he could say anything else, I joined him at the table so we could create a plan of attack together.
I knew he was overwhelmed as soon as he unzipped his school bag and started pulling out the work he had missed due to sickness. Shoulders slumped, he dragged each book out with a pained expression, the thud of the tomes on the table giving voice to the heaviness of his heart.
As soon as our children are capable, we encourage them to “use their words”. But do we also continue to validate and respond to the language of their bodies? The body is a very honest communicator, and the last thing we want to do is twist the truth into a lie.
When my son sat in despair with his homework, I was busy cleaning up after dinner. I wanted to say, “It’s okay. You’ll get it done. In the big scheme of things, it’s really not a big deal.” But that response wouldn’t have acknowledged the truth his body was conveying. He was completely overwhelmed to the point of tears. And he needed someone who could see the emotions flooding his heart by the way his body was reacting. So instead of saying “It’s okay”, I said, “I know this is hard. You feel stressed out. But let’s tackle one thing at a time, and I’ll help you get through it.”
Our children need us to take the time to listen to the language of their bodies. They need to know they can trust what their bodies are telling themselves and others. While we don’t want to encourage them to hit or bite or kick, we do want to acknowledge that the feelings of anger or frustration that their bodies are expressing are very real. These feelings are good. They indicate an underlying need. Feelings are not sinful. It’s how we respond to them that separates the saints from the sinners. I want my children to understand why their bodies are inclined to react in a certain way to different situations. I want them to realize that these inclinations reveal feelings and emotions that deserve attention, but that must be directed in the proper way. Through the virtues of self control and temperance, they can learn to use their bodies for good while still honoring the emotions that make them who they are.
Someday, my children will enter the dating world. When that happens, they will feel like holding hands, they will feel like kissing, and, yes, they will feel like being physically intimate. While I don’t want to encourage them to engage in these activities outside of their proper context, I do want to acknowledge that these feelings are real. They’re good. They’re part of being human. The desires for physical intimacy are what draw us together as co-creators of God’s master plan. We need to read what the body is telling us and direct it appropriately or the human race will cease to exist. I want my children to know that I understand these feelings. I’ve been there. I know it’s not easy to reserve our longings for marriage and for God. After all, our souls and bodies are one, and the desire for love and unity was meant to overwhelm us at times. If we aren’t overwhelmed, then we aren’t longing for heaven with the intensity it deserves.
But hopefully my children will have been raised in an environment where the language of the body is a tool for open communication–an environment where they feel safe expressing the true state of their souls and are open to guidance. We have to do more than just tell our children their souls and bodies are one. We have to show them. We have to see a furrowed brow or a stooped posture for what it is–a deep wound of the soul. And when we take the time to heal a wound of the soul with a loving embrace or gentle touch, we mingle flesh and spirit and reveal our value. “Man is the only creature in the visible world that God willed ‘for its own sake,’” Theology of the Body 15:1 Our value is in our very humanity! It is not in our accomplishments, our possessions, or even our triumphs or failures. It is in the fact that we have a soul and a will that can choose to love–a love that is expressed through the actions of our bodies. When we find our value, we find our dignity–a dignity that we expect others to respect as much as God values us.
So pay attention. Teach your children that the language of their bodies means as much as their words. Respond to their body language with love and respect, and you will get to know their souls. And this will teach them that anyone who says they love them will make every effort to do the same.
The language of the body speaks loud and clear. Are you listening?