What is Existence: The Physicality of Being Alive

Throughout time, philosophers try to answer the question, “what is existence? What does it mean to ‘be alive?”. Of course, many of these philosophers answer this question in metaphysical terms; Derrida suggests “that nature itself is constructed only with reference to the institution” (Turner). The mysterious graffetti artist, Banksy, says, “I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” So much of how we define our ‘existence’ and ‘purpose in life’ depends upon these metaphysical statures: our thoughts, our ‘legacies’, our transcendence out of the physical body. But, what about explaining existence in our physical states?

In her book, ‘Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers’, Mary Roach looks at existence in its most basic forms to suggest that there is something very physical about being human (that we often forget about when we are stuck in the metaphysical properties)–that our bodies are made of physical elements, that we undergo very physical experiences (that perhaps the metaphysical could never hinder), and that, despite whatever kind of mind power we may have, our physical existences still have physical limitations (like–my forearms are super lengthy, which physically makes some yoga postures, such as peacock, physically impossible to get into).  In the book, Mary Roach discusses the instance of plane crashes—that most of the time, it is the debris catapulting around the plane or the fire that is often the cause of death in plane crashes. In another chapter, Roach explores the nature of Jesus’ death on the cross, and in a final chapter, Roach explores ‘human dumplings’ and times in which people ate other people for physical benefits.

In ‘Between the World and Me’, Ta-Nehisi Coates (the author of ‘Black Panther’) grieves the loss of his friend, Prince Carmen Jones Jr., who was accidentally shot and killed by police for a mistaken identity. In his grievance, Coates explains how Prince–who grew up privileged, had parents who loved him, and despite having many metaphysical resources invested in his existence (knowledge, love, time, compassion), ceased to physically exist. As Coates explains it, his body served as a “vessel”–a vessel that held his spirit, his influence, his ephemeral, intangible existence–, and with his death, all of these metaphysical invested resources were non-transferable and ultimately wasted when the physical body was extinguished.

So, what does it mean to be alive? I think, so often in modern day society, we get so caught up in the metaphysical that we forget to acknowledge the physicality of being alive. We forget that our bodies have physical limitations. According to Mark Manson, “Our culture today is obsessively focused on unrealistically positive expectations: Be happier. Be healthier. Be the best, better than the rest. Be smarter, faster, richer, more popular, more productive, more envied, and more admired. Be perfect and amazing and crap out twelve-karat-gold nuggets before breakfast each morning while kissing your selfie-ready spouse and two and a half kids goodbye. Then fly your helicopter to your wonderfully fulfilling job, where you spend your days doing incredibly meaningful work that’s likely to save the planet one day” (Manson 156). We live in a society in which we are told constantly to “reach for the stars” to achieve your dreams—that there are “no limitations” and “endless possibilities”. But, as Mary Roach explores, perhaps of the physicality of the human body, there ARE limitations and things we will never be able to do—even if we have the biggest desire in the world to do it. Right, like our lungs only have SO MUCH air capacity, and when we get sick and our noses snot up, the physical restriction of breathing might make some activities limited. When we travel places, we physically have to find a way to move ourselves (and our luggage) with us.

I’m always fascinated with how we try to strap on blocks and wheels and ropes in order to defy our physical existences. When you think about the kinds of entertainment we enjoy, we are most often attracted to spectacles and ways in which people are expanding or defying their physical states–ways that they are trying to become un-physical, and ways that we try to deny our physical limitations.  A few weekends ago, I traveled to the National Western Stock Show and then watched, “The Greatest Showman” (a fabulous film that I’d highly recommend–In ‘LaLa Land’ I was a little disappointed with Ryan’s dancing, but when Hugh comes out in the first five minutes and stamps his foot, I knew it was going to be good).

When we go to the rodeo, the movie theater, the baseball game, the Cirque de Soil show, ultimately what we are viewing is the amazing ways the human body works. We are awed when the cheerleader throw his flyer ten feet in the air, we love to see the flexibility of the contortionist, we comment on the speed of that running back, we are taken aback when that little vessel of a human produces THAT sound during the National Anthem. We are entertained because, even if we, ourselves, are encapsulated in our own human bodies, we like to see ways other people can transcend that physical existence.

And, what does this mean for us? We live in a society in which the possibilities are endless—we have technology at our fingertips, more leisure time than we’ve ever known what to do with, ease of transportation, the ability to connect with people from across the globe—and yet, we are still physically housed in the same physical bodies that produced us millions of years ago (albeit, our physical forms have undergone minor adaptations, like the absence of wisdom teeth and appendixes in some people), and despite all of our metaphysical wants, needs, desires, hopes, dreams, and goals, the physicality of being human might pose limitations. Mary Roach writes, “Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget (Roach 243).

Being human means also being physical–touchable, corporeal, visible, concrete, actual–real.

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