“For unto us a child is born”. Incarnation in a time of omnipresent screens

Edwin Hübner

We observe with joy and involvement how the newborn child learns to walk upright after one year, how they soon learn to speak and how their bubbling imagination comes to the fore in increasingly contoured play. We see how the child masters their body more and more, how they learn to use their hands skilfully. And we know that a healthy body is the basis for being able to be active in the world without limitations. The importance of a healthy body for the whole of life cannot be overestimated.

The body – heart of the world

Let’s take a closer look at the body. When I look at myself in the mirror, my body shows itself from the outside as my fellow human beings see it; they see my body. This outside view is clearly different from my own experience of the body, which I experience from the inside, in which I live, so to speak.

When I look at my body, a number of observations arise. First of all, I notice that it is always there; I cannot simply leave it somewhere like a briefcase. My body is absolute in its “permanence” and its continued presence is what makes it possible for all other objects to show themselves to me in the first place.

I only ever see my body from one side. I can walk around all other things and look at them from different perspectives, but I can’t do that with my own body. So it is always the same perspective from which I perceive my body and also the world. In the mirror I only see my body, I see myself as other people see me.

For me, the body is not an object like any other but it is always with me. It imposes a certain perspective on all other objects in the world. For me, it is the central point from which I look at the world. My body is the anchor point in the world, only from there can I experience the world. The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty therefore rightly says: “The body is our very means of having a world” (Merleau-Ponty 1966, p. 176).  

The body is not an object in the world but a means of communication with the world. “Our own body is in the world like the heart in the organism: it is the body that keeps all visible spectacle ceaselessly alive, inwardly nourishing and animating it, forming a single system with it” (Merleau-Ponty 1966, p. 239).

With my body I am a part of nature. It is inseparably connected with my environment. It can only be because the environment exists. And every environment is always only that of a body.

All objects are moved by me indirectly. For example, I want to take hold of a cup. The place of the cup on the table determines the movement of my hand from the start. The movement of the hand thus starts from the target. The seed of the movement lies in the target and it then reveals itself in the visible spatial movement. In contrast, I move my body directly. In a sense I am constantly at the goal. I do not have to grasp it from the outside like another object and take it to another place but it is with me from the beginning.

Even such simple observations show how unique our body is. With every birth, the miracle of its creation occurs. The fact that it becomes second nature to us in the course of time does not diminish the miracle.

Conditions of healthy physical development

Phenomenologically, body, soul and spirit play into each other. They cannot be separated in the living human being. The human body is penetrated with soul and spirit. At birth, a human spirit takes hold of the seed of its body and thus enters the world. In the first two decades of its life, it is primarily concerned with forming its body, that is, with making itself at home in the world. The aim of all education and schooling is at heart to give young people the opportunity to enter their adult lives healthy and individualised in body, soul and spirit.

The body is a part of nature, it “is the nature that we ourselves are” as the philosopher Gernot Böhme puts it (Böhme 2003, p. 63). The child therefore needs an environment that allows them to behave “according to their nature”. They need stimuli and challenges to practise their gross and fine motor skills in a variety of ways. Children need strong bonds with adults with whom they can engage in a variety of linguistic exchanges. They also need occasions to stimulate their own imaginative thoughts. Above all, however, for the proper development of their bodies, they need a variety of experiences that allow them to develop their senses comprehensively, because “communication with the world” requires healthy, well-developed senses.

Especially in a world of networked media, it is therefore very helpful to encounter nature as often as possible. We must be aware that in the first six to eight years of life, all bodily maturation processes, all experiences and every activity of the child are reflected in the development of the brain. Life in early childhood shapes the structure of the brain. Once it is formed, it can only be changed with great effort in later life. That is why it is crucial for a person’s biography whether or not they were able to develop their body in a healthy way as a child in contact with a real environment – or whether they spent too much time with screen media.   

The virtual realm and the body

How does the human being relate bodily to the “space” that the screens open up for them? First of all, it is noticeable that people hardly move their bodies. What is shown on the screen is only perceived by the human eye and ear. In front of a screen, the body is largely still. Only the human mind has access to the virtual “space” of the screen.  

The body is left behind immobile. The human being becomes, so to speak, a disembodied spirit that, leaving the body, makes its home in the virtual spirit land.

In the virtual realm, in “cyberspace”, we already have a technical form of the hereafter in this world. Its “immateriality” imitates divine qualities. The philosopher Hartmut Böhme characterises this situation very aptly: “Cyberspace is the medium of escaping the world and at the same time the medium of making oneself present always and everywhere. Cyberspace is the technical form of God: ubiquitous presence in the form of absent presence” (Böhme 1996).

Through screen media, I step out of my body in soul and spirit, and overcome its spatial and temporal limitations. That is seductive. For adults, this is usually no problem. But for children, who first want to settle into the spatio-temporal conditions of the body, the gesture of leaving the body in front of the screen is unhealthy: it hinders their embodiment. The educational ideal of early childhood is therefore to keep media consumption to a minimum, to set strict time rules and, above all, not to allow children to have their own screen media in their room. Here children are dependent on the protection of adults (more on this in Struwwelpeter 2.1).  

Doing, not tapping

Our life with digital devices seduces us into tapping and swiping on screens. The German-Korean philosopher Byun-Chul Han even spoke of a resulting atrophy of the hands: “The ‘tapping, handless person’ of the future, homo digitalis, does not act. The ‘atrophy of the hands’ makes them incapable of action. Both treatment and processing assume a resistance. Action, too, must overcome a resistance. It sets the other, the new against the prevailing. [...] No material resistance emanates from the digital which one would have to overcome by means of work” (Han 2013, p. 47). What Byun-Chul Han draws attention to in a philosophical way can be seen in tangible observations.

For example, it is reported that in the early years in British schools, more and more children have difficulty holding pencils or pens correctly. Because they were mainly handling touch screens in their early childhood, the musculature of their fingers had not developed sufficiently. They lacked fundamental movement skills of the hands. Through intensive therapy in the first months of school, these children had to make up for the missing development of their fine motor skills, The Guardian reports (Hill 2018).  

In these children, the central tool for all action is not sufficiently developed: the hand! If I lack the ability to hold a pen with three fingers, then I am also impaired in my activities in many other areas of life. My clumsiness makes me dependent on other people or devices, in other words, I am dependent. The loudly propagated equipping of schools with tablets is, in this sense, a call to educate children to “tap”. This makes perfect sense in some places in everyday school life. But it is much more important that there should be balancing alternatives in schools: in the age of “tapping”, it is necessary to offer more fields for action. We may well buy digital devices, but above all we must invest in practical fields of doing at school. In an age of devices becoming smarter, we also need to offer practical and artistic fields of work in schools where children can practice the dexterity of their hands so that they are capable of doing in later life.

The miracle of birth

Anyone who picks up a book on embryology and studies the development of the nascent human embryo can only feel a deep reverence for the becoming human being. Every birth is a profound miracle. The philosopher Hannah Arendt writes about this: “The miracle that repeatedly interrupts the course of the world and the trajectory of things human and saves them from the ruin that sits within them as a seed and determines their movement as a ‘law’ is ultimately the fact of natality, being born, which is the ontological prerequisite for there being such a thing as action at all. [...] The ‘miracle’ consists of the fact that people are born at all, and with them the new beginning that they can realise in action by virtue of their being born” (Arendt 2016, p. 316 f.).

And a little later she adds: “That one may have confidence in the world and that one may hope for the world is perhaps nowhere more succinctly and beautifully expressed than in the words with which the Christmas oratorios proclaim ‘the glad tidings’: ‘Unto us a child is born’“. Let us give the child protection, let us give them spaces for development so that they can find the paths into their future.

Note: The reader Struwwelpeter 2.1 - A guide for parents through the media jungle” and the book Gesund aufwachsen in der digitalen Medienwelt - Eine Orientierungshilfe für Eltern und alle, die Kinder und Jugendliche begleiten (shop.diagnose-funk.org/Gesund-aufwachsen-in-der-digitalen-Medienwelt) provide a variety of educational suggestions and tips for parenting.

About the author: Dr Edwin Hübner is a professor at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy and the author of several books on the subject of media education.