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Peripheral or Primary: Two Paradigms for Life

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Yossi Grossbaum, Folsom, California
MyLife Essay Contest 2018 

Introduction

As children grow and mature and begin to become more aware of their appearance, many begin to develop negative body image. In recent years the prevalence of advertising featuring unnaturally attractive models, along with the ubiquitousness of social media, has greatly exasperated the challenges of maintaining positive body image.

Developing positive body image is central to happiness; people with negative body often grapple with many other difficulties as a result. This essay will highlight the attitude of Chassidus toward the body and explain how to reframe our attitude toward the body in a constructive manner.

Bombarded with Perfection

From the moment we wake up until we go to sleep at night, we are bombarded with images of perfection. Whether it’s on social media or TV, in newspapers or on billboards; we are constantly confronted with images of perfection. These images are virtually impossible to live up to but while we may instinctively know that they are manipulated, it’s difficult to ignore their influence. Social media is especially challenging; we often know the person in the picture and we begin to think that if they can do it, so can I.

However, for many, the effort to match ourselves and our appearance to what we see online can have devastating effects. Among other things, negative body image can lead to eating disorders and depression and in extreme cases, even cause suicidal thoughts. Although more commonly discussed with regard to teenage girls and women, negative body image challenges many teenage boys and men as well.

Short of shutting off the TV and disconnecting from all social media, we will highlight the Chassidic approach to life and the attitude toward the body. Along the way we will discover a refreshing system to overcoming this challenge.

Peripheral Presence Paradigm

When one’s paradigm of life is centered on the body, i.e. the physical, tangible, here-and-now mode of existence, the relationship with everything in life is based on utility. “What’s in it for me?” is always the question to be addressed. And the modern consumerist culture reinforces this self-centered attitude.

This perspective on life certainly holds great attraction; after all, it’s convenient and easy to attain. However, it contains an inherent liability; that is its inability to overcome the challenges in life. In other words, this shallow perspective is wonderful as long as it’s all smooth sailing.

But it’s inevitably not smooth.

That’s when the severe inherent limitations in this superficial paradigm become relevant. After all, if your entire existence is based on a physical existence – and that physical existence is somehow harmed or damaged – your entire foundation collapses. And it’s collapse is inevitable since it’s a paradigm founded in the periphery, instead of in the primary.

The same is true regarding the challenge of body image. If one’s entire frame of reference is one’s physical existence, the physical body is of utmost importance. In fact, it is the core of one’s existence, the focal point of one’s life.

This over-emphasis on the body consumes the individual and causes anxiety, often leading to harmful and negative behavior.

“Root Principle” of Torah

An oft-quoted maxim is that the Torah is the “Blueprint of Creation[1]”. It follows that any theme that is highlighted by Torah would be relevant to everyone; any instruction or attitude provided by Torah would be the best way to lead our lives.

This would especially be the case regarding something that is described as the “root principle” of Torah. In Tanya Chapter 32, the Alter Rebbe writes that the “‘root principle’ of the entire Torah is to raise and elevate the importance of the soul over the body.” This principle holds the key to solving some of the most difficult challenges that face modern life, including the issue of body image.

When we approach life with this primary principle firmly guiding our everyday decisions and attitudes, we can overcome the distractions and in fact employ the physical in the service of our primary existence.

The Unbreakable Soul

The strength of our physical existence is limited; external pressure and challenges can in fact break it. However, the soul is unbreakable. And when our physical existence is guided and directed by the soul, it too becomes unbreakable.

The soul is rooted in G-d’s essence[2], hence the immense power it contains enabling it to overcome every challenge. While the challenges of the physical world may be mighty, they may even threaten to swamp the individual[3], the soul is mightier.

Approaching life from a soul paradigm enables the individual to shift the focus from a self centered, peripheral paradigm to a purpose driven existence. When the focus is on self, the individual’s physical body and ability, the pressure to measure up is great and the risk of failing to measure up is high. Conversely, operating from a soul paradigm shifts the focus to the mission – not “what’s in it for me?”- rather “how can I serve[4]?”.

When the focus is on self, on the physical side of existence, the body is central to success. One flaw therefore is devastating, and can cause hardship and distraction. However, when the focus is on service, the body is no more than a tool to accomplish a goal. When something is examined under a spotlight, it’s every flaw is revealed and highlighted. A tool however is measured and valued by its ability to accomplish its goal, not its beauty and perfection.

Maintaining Meaning to Overcome Negative Body Image

Children need to be raised with the knowledge that they are not simply biological accidents, rather they were created with a purpose. This is the lesson we need to impart to the next generation  and continue to remind ourselves and integrate into our lives: Each one of us has a unique mission and our body is the tool with which we can accomplish the mission with which we have been charged. When focused on our mission, while focusing on our soul, we don’t have the ability to worry about our body image – we’re too busy doing our work.

Empty self esteem slogans are meaningless when devoid of a soul-centered paradigm. Working on discovering and achieving our mission in life automatically provides self esteem – after all, we’re needed: There’s an integral mission to be accomplished. Let us provide the next generation with the tools to maintain a correct mindset towards life in general and their body in particular.


[1] “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world” (Yalkut Shimoni. Mishlei 942)

[2] Tanya beginning Chapter 2

[3] See Maamer Mayim Rabim 5738, the pressures of life stem from “tohu”, the chaotic and intense “world” that precedes “tikun” the “world” of order of which we are a part. While the chaos of “tohu” can perhaps overwhelm the order of “tikun”, the soul reaches even higher than tohu – it is one with G-d and stems from G-d’s essence, even more powerful than tohu.

[4] Similar to the famous story of the Chasid who came to the Alter Rebbe with a list of requests from blessing, “You are speaking about what you need. But you have not given a thought to what you are needed for” is how the Alter Rebbe answered him.

 

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