Life in the Body

Furnishing a Room for People (Not Pixels)

As I began rearranging the furniture of my mind to accommodate new ideas about life in the body and limits, the furniture of my house appeared to be out of order. There is a connection between our thoughts, beliefs and embodied lives that was once taken for granted but now seems strange to consider. Good intentions – even excellent thoughts and plans – are never enough.

Experience has taught me that knowing, admiring, and assenting to the true, the good, and the beautiful is necessary to, but nothing like, practicing those things.

In this post, I’d like to help you rearrange your collective furniture – physical and otherwise – and I hope to also receive some input from you that might assist me. How do we embody the very human practices of community and hospitality in our homes? While there are hundreds of potential angles from which to discuss that question, and I’ll devote time to many of them later on, I am inclined to think that (after our hearts are right) the answer starts with the setting. To simplify further, we’ll start with just one room.

The very idea of embodied life – life in a particular place and time, in a given culture – precludes a one-size-fits-all solution. But a few good principles go a long way.

If you can answer the five questions (three sir)

What can you do to untech the living room? Start with some reflective questions:

  • What (or who) is this room for? Is this a space for communication, for entertainment, for eating, for crafting, for studying? For family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, strangers off the street, recovering addicts? If you want to emphasize life in the body and in community, then one thing you can be sure of is that though the space is yours, the space is not primarily for you.
  • What activities and attitudes do you want to encourage here, and how? What are some top items on the list of practices you’d like to strengthen in your home? Conversation? Study? Games together? Art and creative work or play? Water polo (might have to stretch out a bit…)? Exercise? Silence? Seminars? Enjoyable and leisurely meals? Do you want to have a place where it is relatively easy to be deliberate and attentive?
  • Are there any activities you want to discourage? Disconnectedness? Virtual entertainment? Ignorance of others in the room? Rapid entry and exit?
  • How do you want those who use the room to feel while in it? Relaxed? Cared for? Part of a larger and substantive whole? Engaged with others? Listened to? Free to work or to play? Comfortable? Well-treated? Like there is plenty of time and no need to hurry?
  • Does the arrangement of the room indicate a visible preference for embodied life? This is the big question that turns our thinking toward the practical.

You may have noticed that I made some pretty obvious assumptions about your purposes for your room in my suggestions above. If your intention is to have a room dedicated to the virtual – say, to films, sports, news, or some combination of those – then what follows is not for you. In fact, you have probably already achieved your goal, though I hear that just about anything can be improved upon.

Readers with different intentions – more like mine, in other words – may not have thought as much until recently about how the physical settings of our lives affect our thinking, our habits, and our conversations. Now that you have had a moment or two to reflect, take more time to think through those questions later on and see what you think of these possible applications.

Unteching the Living Room

  • Remove the TV (and any other virtual screens). Yes, this is controversial and not for everyone and so on and so forth. I can assure you that if you are among those immediately raising objections, this is likely to help in many ways you do not expect. It’s worth a month’s trial at any rate. But if you don’t remove them, at least…
  • Move the screens so that they are not positioned as the room’s focal point. Depending on the size of your current virtual apparatus, this may not be possible without moving them to another room (or into another house, thrift store, or eBay sale). Remember, what you’re aiming for here should be the conclusions you reached in response to the questions above. What is the space really for?
  • Arrange seating furniture to face family and guests toward one another. Be creative here, and think a lot before you start moving things. If your house is like mine, a lot of those things are heavy. If you do this well, the focal point of the room (for each person) becomes others in the room, with (perhaps) a secondary emphasis on a table where food and drink may be shared. A floor space in the midst, if practical, becomes a natural place for younger children to play in the company of their parents and friends. A couple of generations gathered around the TV has made us culturally uncomfortable with an arrangement like this, but I assure you that the transition is worth the initial discomfort.
  • Arrange surfaces with hospitality and ease of cleaning in mind. We have all been scarred by the spotless photos of functionally sterile (but bright and artistically decorated) rooms that feature in home-making magazines, ever-present advertising, and on countless websites. Those rooms weren’t furnished for people. They were furnished for photo-ops.
  • Keep floors, surfaces, and (yes) even walls free of visual clutter. Much more on this another time, but I think we all know how distracting the spectacle that my wife and I refer to as ‘random stuff’ can be. It pulls the focus away from ‘one another’ to ‘one thing after another’. (And yes, children produce clutter as a magician produces rabbits, but it’s possible to keep that clutter to a minimum and train them as they grow to clean up after themselves.)

Just these few beginning steps can make a significant difference in the way a room of your house feels and, believe it or not, the sorts of interactions that take place within its walls. The adjustments are quite affordable also – requiring an investment of time and thought, but little or no cash – and will return a profit that cannot be obtained another way.

Please don’t bury yourself in a perfectionist tomb as you go about this process, either: remember, we’re dealing with life in the body – you have limits – and that’s OK. It’s also OK if some of your priorities for room use differ from my own, of course – but to recover the human element in how we structure our spaces means reflecting. It means having an intention.

So don’t neglect the element of purpose and the practical transition from life in ideas to life in the body. Furniture matters! Embodying your deep beliefs about what we were made for might mean that today, you do something idiomatic with a hunk of wood and stuffed fabric (or a hulking mass of glass and plastic) – move it or lose it. 😉

You will be more human, and you will be more happy.

How do you arrange the furniture in your home to enhance life in the body and in community? Do you disagree with some (or all) of these principles and applications? What else can we do to facilitate hospitality and thoughtful interaction in our living spaces? Let us know in the comments.