For Conrad (and many of the other characters in the novel), there is a struggle to reconcile physical sensations with mental convictions. When achieved, that reconciliation forms the basis of recovery and well-being. As Berger repeatedly warns Conrad, "The body never lies." Conrad and his family members are often tangled up in their own thoughts, blaming themselves for ideas they cling to, or worrying about what others may think of them. Yet in many cases, Conrad's biggest enemy is not his mind but his body. His reactions to stressful situations are often physical before they become mental, and Guest's narration repeatedly weaves sensory material into mental reactions. In those moments, Conrad's physical reactions play a big part in shaping his thoughts, emotions, and actions.
At the opening of the novel, Conrad faintly realizes that putting mind and body in agreement will keep him healthy. He therefore tries to control and repress physical signs of anxiety by sticking to a plan he's made to get him through the day. Even if he doesn't quite believe it, he believes he must "Get the motions right. Motives will follow. That is Faith." But despite his good intentions, Conrad spends most of the novel splitting the mental and physical parts of himself – exploring his mental and emotional life with Berger, but experiencing lots of physical stress everywhere else. The same is true for Conrad's school activities. He finds no joy in swimming, where he cannot "[improve his] timing" or "[perfect] a stroke" without the right motivation; his schoolwork is a constant source of mental stress. But singing in his school choir demands equal amounts of concentration and control – which makes it one of Conrad's favorite activities. And his relationship with Jeannine begins to deepen in a moment of play-acting depicted in Chapter 20: the words and ideas of an imaginary couple are brought to life by Conrad and Jeannine's own bodies, which eventually leads to their first kiss, more dates, and, eventually, the first time they have sex—one of the novel's most vivid depiction of both physical and emotional healing.
Conrad finally learns to forgive himself when, at the book's climax, his memories of the boating accident meld with the different physical sensations he experiences while showering. Before that point, his nightmares are often intensely physical. Mind and body often seem at odds with one another, but they don't have to be – nor should they be. When Conrad integrates them, he "is in touch for good, with hope, with himself, no matter what. Berger is right, the body never lies."
Body/Mind Duality ThemeTracker
Body/Mind Duality Quotes in Ordinary People
Choir is the one time of day when he lets down his guard; there is peace in the strict concentration that Faughnan demands of all of them, in the sweet dissonance of voices in chorus. He has sung in here since he was a freshman. …Every minute of every hour that is spent there, they work, and there is only one way to prove yourself. You sing, and sing, and sing. All else is unimportant.
"Things were so different in the hospital. People were, you know, turned on all the time. And you just can't live like that. You can't live with all that emotion floating around, looking for a place to land. It's too exhausting. It takes so much energy, just to get through a day…"
Later on, he may become bored and drink too much. Or else he will enjoy himself, relax, and drink too much. Another familiar pattern. He has noted this about himself lately: that he drinks too much when they go out. Because drinking helps. It has gotten him through many evenings, either deadening the pain or raising him above it to where small events seem pleasurable and worth recording.
In bed he waits for sleep. He cannot get under until he has reviewed the day, counted up his losses. He must learn more control, cannot allow himself the luxury of anger. He has seen it happen before. Guys become easy targets for the Stillmans of the world. Next time laugh when he needles you.
He has done it, maybe for the wrong reasons, but it was the right thing to do. There is no problem improving your timing, or perfecting a stroke, if the desire is there, but you cannot fire it up, cannot manufacture desire, when there is no spark at all to build on. This was not a mistake, what happened today. It is not to be looked at as a failure.
She pulls in her breath, and her arms are around his waist, her head on his chest. He stands, holding her; tests the feeling of someone leaning on him, looking to him for support. He feels as if he could stand here holding her forever. Her lashes are wet, golden in the harsh overhead light. He lifts her chin with his hand and kisses her. Her face is tear-streaked, her mouth loose under his, turned slightly down. He has never felt so strong, so needed.
"Geez, if I could get through to you, kiddo, that depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling. Reduction, see? Of all feeling. People who keep stiff upper lips find that it's damn hard to smile."
She laughs. "Why won't you take anything seriously?"
He lies down flat, the hat over his face. "No sense taking the questions seriously, if there aren't any answers."
"Con. Do you believe people are punished for the things they do?"
"Punished You mean by God?"
"I don't believe in God," he says.
…She turns toward him, and the ends of her hair fall lightly against his chest. "What do you believe in?"
"Oh, tennis courts, wallpaper," he says, "Florsheim shoes, Miami Beach—"
"Liar," she says, her arms sliding around his neck.
"—you," he says, kissing her.
"Liar again, but that's nice."
And he squeezes her tightly, feeling the sense of calm, of peace slowly gathering, spreading itself within him. He is in touch for good, with hope, with himself, no matter what. Berger is right, the body never lies.
For he sees something else here: that her outer life is deceiving; that she gives the appearance of orderliness, of a cash-register practicality about herself; but inside, what he has glimpsed is not order, but chaos; not practicality at all, but stubborn, incredible impulse.