Black Body and Soul

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates often refers to himself and other black people as bodies. The central fear of blacks in America, he writes, is and has been that their bodies will be destroyed. The fear pervades the bravado of black youth as well as the steely hope of the elders. Instead of using an I or we or you, Coates writes such sentences as “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed” and “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage” (103).

In the middle of the book, this theme of the body takes a turn.

I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh. (79)

I have no praise anthems [in memory of the deaths of slaves], nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton. (103)

For Coates, soul and spirit exist as mortal, not immortal, human attributes, present in us when we live and gone when we die.



Coates surprised me when he argued for the thoroughly bodily nature of spirit and soul. I think of my own blog here as a history of bodies and a non-theistic view of spirit. But I have had the luxury of holding that view without feeling that the threat of bodily destruction by other people hangs over me and all those close to me at all times. Coates puts aside the immaterial and the supernatural despite believing that the bodies he cares about are never safe from violence. I’ve never been put to that test.

Coates is not fully comfortable with his secularism, however. He writes to his son, to whom the book is addressed, that he, Coates, worries about having missed something by rejecting religion.

I thought of my own distance from an institution that has so often been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. (139)

Perhaps what he might have “missed” here, something beyond the body but less than the supernatural, is the experience of feeling an integral part of the church he has kept his distance from. Even for a person skeptical about god, the sharing and bonding among church members as a group of humans over time can impart a strength and well-being in and of itself. Other prolonged collective efforts can have similar effects, including political activism. Coates writes to his son that his life has essentially been happy, “that I drew great joy from the study, from the struggle toward which I now urge you” (115). The joy of the struggle may be small consolation for pillaged bodies, but for this writer of racial tragedy, it seems to have been worth a great deal.

Imperfect Choices, Conflicting Loyalties

I’ve been thinking about how often the discontents in our lives are rooted in the tension between our social bonds and our sharp sense of our individual well-being. Our genes happily carry both our social and our self-protective tendencies because both capacities, when they work together, support our survival. Like other social species, humans have long been “stronger together” when it comes to planning a steady food supply, building housing, and defending themselves. But the quickest signal that one of us is sick, injured, threatened, or being cheated comes not from a group but from our individual first-alert reactions—fear, pain, suspicion.

When our sociality—the term refers to our inherited tendency to form groups—and our sense of self harmonize so smoothly that our well-being seems complete, that’s a mutuality that we build our moral ideals on. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But such balance doesn’t last. The self is quick to feel slighted in one way or another. In a recent family discussion, for example, several cousins and in-laws of mine told tales of flawed diagnoses and unwanted side effects.  “Damn it, it’s my body that’s at stake” was one protest. Change the wording to “my life,” “my rights,” “my money,” “my freedom” and you have a sampling of the self-protective alarms that go off when we find ourselves at odds with a group or what it stands for.

But we may be less quick to notice how often our discontent also comes not from the “me” end of the social spectrum but from the “we.” We often and easily assert the values of our family, community, workplace, ethnicity, political affiliation, religion. Liberals and conservatives denounce each other, seniors lament their juniors, believers rebuke the skeptics. As often as we defend “my” interests against a group, we also speak up for “our” values when dissidents seem wrong-headed.

Beneath all these labels,  accusations, and justifications by and about selves and groups I’m hearing more clearly the tumultuous human dilemma that sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson summed up in a memorable passage. Wilson may be best known for his thesis that natural selection favors not only those changes that benefit the individual organism but also changes that favor the group itself. Most biologists dispute the validity of such “group selection” as a separate level of natural selection. But no one disagrees that sociality itself runs deep and strong in our species among many others. And when our loyalty to our clan, party, religion or other group clashes with our sense of our own well-being, we feel angry, sad, confused, frightened, or betrayed. Here, says Wilson, is our spiritual turmoil—and our humanity.

Some years ago I read this passage in Wilson’s Sociobiology (2000 edition). The sentences appear near the close of the fifth chapter. Wilson characterizes our biological and humanistic dilemma with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic from around 300 B.C. E. Here, the god Krishna steers the chariot of the reluctant prince Arjuna to an impending battle in which Arjuna’s relatives and closest friends will be fighting for the other side. Wilson writes that the theory of group selection

predicts ambivalence as a way of life in social creatures. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forced to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties—between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubborn.”

Krishna-Arjuna-battle (

Arjuna hesitates on the Field of Righteousness (

I remember feeling the sweep and the dilemma of human emotion here, from its biological roots to its spiritual consequences, from doubt and guilt to righteousness and war. I took in what I could, then turned the page. But the passage was the kind that sometimes plants itself in our memory more firmly than we know and rises again years later when we need it. Actually, I remembered the passage inaccurately. The condensed version that I had carried for so long included the words autonomy and sociality, two terms missing here that Wilson uses elsewhere.

Still, though, I think that autonomy and sociality are good labels for these volatile allies. We are Arjuna. We all come to the field of life with two capacities that work together though not easily or perfectly.  And I have more empathy for people, myself included, when I listen for the rumbling, ageless tension of self versus group beneath our “imperfect choices” and “irreconcilable loyalties.”

The Limits of Happiness?

I recently quoted some of Steven Pinker’s observations in How the Mind Works about an evolutionary perspective on happiness. Those ideas have stayed on my mind. The topic is comparatively new and it is complex: emotions are subjective, their names are approximate, and they don’t leave fossils. But the evolutionary viewpoint might shed added light on the nature of all the positive emotions that we put under the umbrella of happiness.

What I gather from Pinker is that we tend to think, inaccurately,  that the positive emotions such as happiness, pleasure, and contentment are similar to negative feelings such as fear and sadness in that all of them can range in intensity from mild to extreme and all of them, pleasant and painful alike, can range from brief to long-lasting. We know that people can be mildly sad for a couple of days or severely depressed for years. And in a parallel way, we think that people can be cheerfully happy for a few hours after a social event, which we can, or ecstatically happy for years—which, with rare exceptions, we cannot. “Happiness without limits.” Perhaps—my comment, not Pinker’s— our culture’s relentless messages about the “pursuit” and affordability of happiness have fostered an image of  happiness as a goal that we can reach, hold on to, and even get “better” at.  Not so, says Pinker.

happiness limits poster (

For starters, “There are twice as many negative emotions (fear, grief, anxiety, and so on) as positive ones.” This difference is one clue that the positive emotions are not exactly opposites of the negative ones. Another is that “[P]eople’s mood plummets more when imagining a loss in their lives…than it rises when imagining an equivalent gain.” There are not only more negative than positive emotions but the negative ones pack a stronger punch.

The reason, in terms of evolution, is that there are limits to the benefits of happiness that don’t apply to the negative emotions. Pinker: “The psychologist Timothy Ketelaar notes that happiness tracks the effect of resources on biological fitness. As things get better, increases in fitness show diminishing returns: more food is better, but only up to a point. But as things get worse, decreases in fitness can take you out of the game: not enough food, and you’re dead” (392).

In other words, the dangers of of injury, illness, and enemies call for variable levels of pain and emotional distress to signal the seriousness of the threat—emotional smoke alarms that can grow louder and last longer as the threat intensifies. On the other hand, the joys of health, sociability, creativity, and even spirituality don’t call for such an intensification. We would gain no improved fitness for survival from a growing intensity of feeling good to feeing joyful to feeling ecstatic for growing lengths of time. In fact, sustained joy at too high a level might mean letting our guard down; happiness with no limits could increase risks. The wisdom of  “too much of a good thing” seems more deeply rooted in our biology than we imagined.

This is a topic I hope to pursue again. Interesting related readings include a discussion over at Humanistic Paganism on the potential excesses of spiritual experiences. And this 2009 dissertation by Kenneth Lehman on Darwinian Happiness , while specialized, is informative in its opening pages about the definitions and assessment techniques that research psychologists work with in happiness studies.