I Am Not A Ghost: The Memories Our Bodies Carry

A message delivered at Earlham College Meeting for Worship on August 20, 2023

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and
said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified and
thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you
frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my
feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and
bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his
hands and his feet. Yet for all their joy they were still disbelieving and
wondering, and he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave
him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Luke 24:36-43, NRSV

If you asked me at 18 years old, I would have gladly lived as a ghost. Around that time, I read a story by Kurt Vonnegut, called Unready to Wear. It was about a future where people learned to leave their bodies, existing only as spirits if they wanted to. There were warehouses of empty bodies that people could jump into and out of at will. I was enthralled with this idea of escaping my body. It would solve so many problems that I had, and erase so much damage that had been done to me. One part of the story bothered me, though. It was completely unthinkable to me, but some people in that story chose not to leave their bodies. What possible benefit could there be to being tied to the same body with all its problems, injuries, and shortcomings for an entire lifetime?

For many of us, there are parts of our bodies’ histories that others would prefer stay hidden, or be erased entirely. Maybe our bodies challenge a norm. Maybe our bodies are a reminder of something others want to deny or forget. And so there are times we hide or deny our bodies just to survive. But sometimes when we show the signs of that history, we are demonstrating that we have power, that we are still standing, that we won’t go away. When Jesus showed his scars to his disciples, he was demonstrating that his presence was not as some abstract spirit disconnected from this world. He was present as a person, fully, with all the scars and history of the life he lived. And that they could be present to each other in the same way. But more than that, him being present with his wounds and scars proved that all the might of the Roman empire and even the grave had no power to destroy him or his people. When we carry our bodies’ histories with us, whether showing them to others or simply holding on to them ourselves, we can do the same. We can show that those who would shame us into hiding, frighten us into fleeing, or even destroy us entirely do not have power over reality. They do not have the power to erase us, or our memories.

The memories we display on our bodies can also show others new possibilities of how they can be in the world. I remember the first time I became aware that trans people could exist as real, living people in the world. I was camping with some friends. There was a trans man who was camping with a group of friends next to my group’s campsite, and he walked around without a shirt, proudly showing his top surgery scars. I can still remember flirting with him across the campfire, excited in a new understanding that my body is not an unchangeable prison I’m trapped in. My body is a part of a conversation about who I am, who I’ve been, and who I can be. When you meet new people, look for what they’re showing you about who they are and where they’ve been. You may not go the same way as them, but you may learn of other ways to be in the world than you ever thought could be possible.

We can also choose memories we want to carry with us, as well. I had a friend named Boo. In our social group I was the organized, serious one, and Boo was the one who was silly and spontaneous; the guy who would get a joke tattoo based on a cartoon we all watched just to make himself and all of us smile. He died suddenly in a car accident, and he took his smile, his jokes, and his tattoos with him. Each of us in that friend group decided to get one of his tattoos, ourselves. So now I carry that goofy clown tattoo and the memory of Boo along with me wherever I go. You may not use ink in your skin, but when you can, select some memories you want to bring along with you in an object, an image, or a habit.

Our bodies are always offering information about what we need, but they can build up new ways to communicate those needs, too. At one job I worked, I built up a stress-related injury in my right shoulder over time that eventually made it so I couldn’t raise my right arm. After several medical treatments and years of physical therapy, I have the abilities back that I lost. But from time to time that shoulder tells me when I need a break, when I need to calm down, and when the situation I’m in is doing me harm and I need to get out as soon as I can. Listen to the messages your body tells you, and try to appreciate those messages even when they’re painful.

There are links between our minds and our bodies that are so strong that when we are in the same physical conditions, we snap right back into a memory or a behavior. For you maybe it’s riding a bike, or playing an instrument, or dancing to a certain song. For me it’s that little bounce that you do when you’re holding a baby in your arms and trying to soothe them to sleep. What these examples show us is that the state of our bodies affects how our minds are working, how our memories are formed and recalled, and how we learn. In your learning spaces and in your communities, be aware of the conditions around you and the impact they’re having on your body. Don’t be afraid to ask for changes to the environment around you, and respect when others tell you how that environment is affecting them.

Our bodies carry memories that predate us. My body carries with it many different histories: English Quakers and Swiss anabaptists imprisoned and cast out for their beliefs, Irish farmers forced out of their homes: even one Irish rebel whose sister broke him out of prison to escape a sentence of death. But it also carries the benefits of settlers moving onto stolen land, the shameful history of owning other people, and the financial gain of grandparents on both sides rewarded for participation in war. Learn these histories that your own body brings into spaces that you occupy. And listen to others about the impacts those histories have on them.

In keeping with the Quaker tradition, I want to share with you some questions that I hope you’ll find useful to consider. And I hope that you’ll speak up and share about them either during this meeting time or in other places after.

-Whose bodies have shown you the ways you could be in the world?

-Which parts of your body’s history do you ignore, deny, or hide?

-Which parts of your body’s history do you embrace or show?

-When you show these memories or when you hide them, who or what does it empower, and who or what does it diminish?

As you think of these questions, as you sit in this space, as you go into the Earlham community, and as you move out into the wider world, I urge you: don’t forget to bring your bodies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.