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Davis, California

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Body by you

“Don’t let your body be your master,” the priest says to the young man. “You must be the master of your body.”

I can’t remember where I had heard this before. It was either in a book I read awhile back or on a random TV show. But whatever the case may be, this is an idea that just keeps coming back to me, kind of like that stray dog you petted that one time and so it decided to follow you around the rest of the day.

This idea created a lot of discomfort for me because of the dialectic going on in my head. Who is this “you” as opposed to your body? Considering the circumstances, there seems to be an implied metaphysical claim about the nature of human beings. But at the very least, this separation of “you” and your body seems plausible. However the mind-body problem is not something I want to discuss here. Rather, I bring all of this up to discuss the next question on my mind. What does it mean to be the master of your body?

At first glance, the concept seems easy enough to understand. To master your body, just go to sleep when you want, attempt a back-flip when you want, go to the hospital when you want, which will most likely be the case after the previous. Of course, it isn’t that simple.

It seems a person is sleepy when they’ve had too much or not enough sleep. But when you’re sleepy, you just want to sleep regardless. Or once you’ve gotten into the habit of eating too much, you become hungry more often, but you’re also hungry when you haven’t eaten enough. Regardless, you just want to eat. So when you don’t listen to your body enough, it’s a problem. It seems there’s a problem also when you listen to it too much. The dilemma is when should one listen to their body?

Just to make my point a little clearer, consider the following:

I think college students are some of the world’s best manipulators of their bodies; however, I would not say masters of them. Whenever college students face all-nighters, it’s time to whip out the Rockstars and Red Bulls. To get just the right shape that diet and exercise can’t achieve, there’s the protein supplements. In a few conversations I’ve had or overheard, some people even need an iPod’s lullaby just to go to sleep. I don’t know about you, but I find something amiss with this picture.

I believe the problem is that people fail to distinguish between mastery and manipulation. Manipulation is more along the lines of coercion and, almost as a law of nature, will result in a backlash. True mastery is more like correctly gaining cooperation and entails that only desired consequences will result. If more of this kind of attitude was applied to foreign policy and affairs, the world would be a better place, but that’s a separate issue.

St. Francis of Assisi was known for his penchant for nature. He’d call each creature “brother bird” or “sister wind” and would also constantly refer to his own body as a second person, “brother body.” To paraphrase what was written about St. Francis in the book, Brother Leo Remembers St. Francis, his body had allowed him to journey and preach, for which he was grateful to his body.

But there was always a power struggle with it. He would constantly remind his body that he was its master, as if it were another person with a will. Sometimes he felt he had to preach even though his body was tired. Conversely, though he would have liked to preach and pray 24 hours a day, sometimes he would just have to rest, sleep and eat.

I think St. Francis was able to truly master his body, meaning he gained a proper relationship and understanding with it. You do what you want with your body so long as whatever you do now won’t prevent you from doing it long into the future. This is just my way of saying that setting your mind on what is above entails healthy habits.


JEREMY MALLETT is reflecting on whether or not he should try this whole skydiving thing. It is certainly “above,” but then what are the chances of there still being a future? Send advice to jjmallett@ucdavis.edu. XXX


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