According to Aristotle, the psyche, (meaning soul, breath, animating spirit, mind), is the form of the body, in that it forms the body, is the origin of its movements, and is the body’s final aim and purpose. The psyche sculpts the body, yet is itself without body, and therefore cannot be located in, or reduced to, a particular organ, or cell, or gene.
James Hillman, in The Force Of Character, compares the body and the soul to a sock.
Take, for instance, your favorite pair of wool socks. You get a hole in a heel and darn it. Then you get a hole in the big toe – and you darn that too. Soon the darned holes are more of the sock than the original wool. Eventually, the whole darned sock is made of different wool. Yet, it’s the same sock.
A human body is like that sock, sloughing off its cells, changing its fluids, fermenting utterly fresh cultures of bacteria as others pass away. Your material stuff through time becomes altogether different, yet you remain the same you. There seems to be an innate image that does not forget your basic paradigm and that keeps you in character, true to yourself.
If what outlasts the wool is the form, then a preoccupation with physical decay – with where the sock is wearing thin – misses a crucial point. Sure, the sock is showing holes, and stitching up its weak places keeps it functional. But our minds might more profitably be thinking about the mystery of this formal principle that endures through material substitutions.
There comes a time when we look into the mirror and wonder who that old person is staring back at us. It’s as if our bodies no longer reflect who we are. They don’t express who we feel ourselves to be, internally. There’s a distinct and disturbing mismatch. There’s a sense of being estranged from our own bodies. Then it hits us and the question arises, Yes, I need this body, but am I this body?
Ultimately, the body is not about the body. The physical is not exclusively about itself, not for humans. The soul is the body’s final aim and purpose. There lies within us a metaphysical dimension that seems not to wither with time. To the contrary, the soul seems to mature, to evolve, to become ever more vital. And thus, the mismatch. Outside we are becoming stiff, inside more flexible, outside, weaker, inside, stronger, outside, ragged, inside, refined.
As we become older the body can do less, but can empathize more, and not just with people. The senses become mediums of communion. Boundaries blur. It’s as if we become a host for the world around us. We open our sensory doors and welcome the world in; we let everyone and everything fill us. The emptier we become, of ourselves, the more completely the world can enter and fill us, sometimes to the point of total identification with the world at large. No longer identified with ourselves, we’re overcome with a joyful neutrality. We’re free.
Shortly before he died, Carl Jung wrote, I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am distressed, depressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once, and cannot add up the sum. I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgment about myself and my life. There is nothing I am quite sure about…
When Lao-tzu says: ‘All are clear, I alone am clouded,’ he expresses how I now feel. Yet there is so much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, essences of people. The more uncertain I have grown about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things. In fact it seems to me as if that alienation which so long separated me from the world has become transferred into my own inner world, and has revealed to me an unexpected unfamiliarity with myself.”
When my dog Amy was old, so old that she could not walk, was incontinent, could not hear, or see, I still cared for her because when I held her in my arms and carried her out into the yard and lay her down on the green grass where she could feel the breeze blow through her fur, I knew her body was doing what it was intended to do, to bring joy to her soul.
Yes, the day came to put Amy down. She died in my arms, and the moment she did, she was gone. Her body had done its job, and done it well. Anyone who has held someone and felt the moment of their dying knows that a person is not their body. In that moment, immediately, the body becomes unreal, like a wax figure of someone who once was and will never be again.
So let us remember, especially as our bodies begin to falter, why we have them, why they outlast their beauty and their skillfulness. Bodies last beyond their usefulness to give us as much time as possible to reach their final aim and purpose; the maturation of soul, the culmination of character.