“Facts matter” flashes across screens constantly as an important contrast to the swirl of misinformation spewed daily. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday famously said in the Dragnet classic. “My decision will be based on the facts,” state many politicians. I support them. Facts are important. But my stomach has been feeling queasy. As a dance artist, I have spent a lifetime resisting an over-reliance on the facts and communicating the essentialness of the body’s wisdom in making life choices.
The overkill of “facts matter” is understandable given that President Trump has been notoriously dismissive of science and truth. Just recently, while discussing the fires in California he said, “Well, I don’t think science knows.” And as much as I believe in listening to the body, I was appalled to hear the president say back in 2018, “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”
Hearing the president justify his decisions based on his gut prompted a moment of crisis for me. Could I really be this out of alignment with our data-driven culture and in cahoots with Donald Trump?
No doubt, thanks to the president, intuition is getting a bad rap. But unlike the president’s example, intuition only becomes useful when it has been cultivated through a rigorous and ongoing practice. My early research as a choreographer was conducted within a female-based dance world, which allowed for internal based discoveries. I asked where love resides, in the heart or the brain? I heightened my reflexes by moving fast while in a collision course with another body. I studied communal bathing as a doorway to cultural differences, sweating in the hammams of Istanbul, rolling in yerbas in the mud huts of Mexico, and jumping into the ice pools of Helsinki.
Frivolous, you may think, but by positing research as a journey into the unknown, the body became both a guide and a library, containing volumes of stories that signaled right from wrong. Values were written into my fascia. Trust your gut, listen to your heart, became important listening posts. Neuroscientists have confirmed the power of these maxims, reporting that the heart and gut not only respond to the brain, but the brain continuously responds to the heart and gut. I made life decisions aligned with my body’s wisdom, and when I did so, I lived a healthier life.
It was not until later in life, when I came into a leadership position within a large, hierarchical, male-dominated institution, I realized how foreign my approach to life had become. In my earlier world I had been free to cackle and scream, just like the witches of medieval times. This place was as foreign as plunging into a hole in the ice. A leader was thought to be decisive, organized, and, most of all, in control. I was asked for decisions based on the numbers. Nobody inquired about my gut, and it didn’t matter if a decision aligned with my heart.
Leadership, like most other things, has been shaped by those who have led for millennia. Rupturing this norm seems critical if women and people of color are to not only enter leadership, but thrive.
What if, instead, leadership was a circuitous journey and leaders consulted their bodies as a trusted guide? The bile gets caught in my throat as I realize how this proposition sounds just like our present nightmare. I take a breath. Making ethical choices should be inherently a collaborative discussion between mind and body. Facts should be filtered through a sieve, one made up of embodied values. Rupturing the norm could mean a synthesis of two worlds, rather than a see-saw to the other side. Thankfully, my stomach quiets down.
Trump’s “facts” are anything but. His gut is rooted in ego, the seat of his values, which is happily in total control without any checks and balances. His base loves him for this genuine authenticity, a source of his charisma. Trump’s example sadly reminds us that listening to the body does not always mean integrity is present.
But I won’t let him own my message. The facts say one thing but my sagging jaw says something different. If I ask why, I get a lively conversation. When the body has been attended to, and is in consultation with real facts, we arrive at decisions that are integrated with our values. With every choice, the body knows before the brain knows; it senses when something is wrong, and it intuits conflicts between the body and mind, feelings and intellect, truth and lies. It absorbs experiences, and it never lies.
Facts matter, and so does the gut. Next time an important decision looms, go through the facts and figures. Then ask, will your heart be happy?
Jan Erkert is a professor and Head of the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.