Sunday, March 2, 2008

Does Church Cause Disability?

Being told at an early age that the dentist won't hurt you and Mr. Rogers's reassurance that you that you can't go down the bathtub drain inspire corollary thoughts: the possibility that someone sometime was hurt by the dentist, and that someone's pipes somewhere were large enough to let a small child pass through. (Yes, my fears started early.) In much the same way, being given the book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People by two different people when I was hospitalized as a child led me to believe that it was at least possible my problems were my fault. I was confused by the implication I was good (how would the gift givers know?) and the implication that God was involved, or possibly even created my physical problems to "test" me, as one person said. It also made me realize that such an explanation was needed because some people believed bad things happen only to bad people, and that people could think this of me. My prayers still didn't center on cures but upon practicalities--such as the relief of severe pain or to be able to take dance lessons, though I tried not to turn God into Santa Claus.

What I noticed at a church we attended a few years ago is that most prayer concerns and discussions centered on people's illnesses and disabilities. Although the title here is provocative and I actually don't think that church causes illness or disability by focusing on it, sometimes I felt my personal privacy invaded by too many questions I did not want to answer (and I felt it would be rude not to answer). At the same time, explaining (and apologizing for) my disability is someting I grew accustomed to because of the modes of discussion at church. These days I allow myself more privacy. I feel comfortable giving people a very general response, but will generally only give specifics to those I feel close to. When one person described me as a chronic complainer, I was embarrassed--I saw myself as a chronic explainer--I felt the need to justify how and why I did things as I did, because of what I'll call "church talk." In fact, the effect was the opposite of what I intended--rather than reducing attention by explaining why I had to move as I did and why I would not or could not do some things, I emphasized my illness so it looked as if that was what I was most concerned about. But in my accustomed contexts (church, family, some friends but not others), chronic explaining was expected.

These days I don't attend church because organized religion does not fit my beliefs; though there are some shared values, I was unhappy with some of the ideas my children were acquiring, too many of which did not accord at all with our beliefs. Although our church's philosophy and the ministers are liberal, the congregation and the teachers were not particularly so. In addition, I can't go to church because of the seating. It's not worth the extra pain. I'd rather have more time with my children out of pain. We're still on the mailing list for the class, and it's basically crisis after crisis. I don't mean to be unsupportive of others, but I'd rather not focus my time and energies on acquaintances of acquaintances who have had some injury or illness. Though I wish every human being well and hope for others' good health, I can't allow myself to be drawn into what amounts to gossip about people who may not want their coworkers or friends giving them that much public attention. I did confuse people, though, in that I never raised prayer concerns for myself, compelling the leaders after one lengthy pause to start adding in "and concerns felt but unstated" in the weekly prayers.

When I ran into one of the women at a theater in December, she was amused, in fact laughed, at the way I walked. Despite knowing about the health problems, I don't think people often realize or make the connections. I don't need that. Sometimes the overfocus on distant others keeps people from seeing what is close at hand.

Additional thought: For those who say that we are never given more than we can bear, they're wrong. Sometimes it is too much and survival involves a catalytic reaction, a fundamental change, because to survive some pains means that part of you has to die to pull through. You're not the same person. Simplistic truisms such as, "it's for the best" or "I know how you feel, I pulled a muscle once" don't cut it in terms of empathy.

No comments: