Lament for the Helpless

Last week was Adult VBS with Walter Brueggemann.

The whole experience was a much needed reminder as to why I wanted to move across the country to be a part of a brand new program. Those five days were extremely fruitful for new ideas and perspectives, some of which I will be posting about in the coming days and weeks. But I wanted to make a brief post reflecting on my project in light of my Adult VBS experience.

I have been recently trying to find an article I thought I bookmarked months ago. As best as I can remember, it was about a father who took pictures of his daughter, who I believe has cerebral palsy, in different natural settings. The one that sticks in my mind the most is a picture of her, on the ground, covered in dirt to blend in to the scenery. I really wish I could link to the article and picture, but I have yet to find it again.

In the quest to find this picture I’ve scrolled through what feels like thousands of pictures of persons with disabilities hoping to spot it. It was a very emotional experience – I was on the verge of tears more times than I can count.

Why is that? I know I am not alone in feeling this way. I can remember several end-of-year assemblies at the school (only for persons with disabilities too severe to be included in a “normal” primary/secondary school) my brother attended. They always finished with a slide show complete with overly sentimental music – the kind you are likely to hear under an animal adoption or a “feed these children for only $1 a day” commercial.

I don’t think they were intentionally trying to toy with my emotions (unlike the commercials), but it always did. You would think growing up with a brother with profound disabilities – both intellectual and physical – would desensitize me when faced with others like him. But in reality, not only did I feel this way about other people with disabilities, I felt this way about my brother, too. Even though I care for him deeply, it was hard for me to overcome that emotional barrier.

I sense that my reaction to seeing images of persons with disabilities is one that is shared with most people, at least in the US. The question remains, why? I have some thoughts.

There are two types of images that elicit this response from me: images just of people with disabilities, and images of people taking care of (holding, carrying, embracing, feeding, etc.) person with disabilities.

The first elicits feelings of pity. I feel bad, even sorry for them. Since reading a bunch of different articles and books on disability studies and theology this response is commonly renounced by people with disabilities because it often leads to problematic social situations. Too often, this feeling of pity leads to an understanding of the person with a disability only in terms of what they cannot do, not to mention it perpetuates a socio-economic power dynamic that prevents persons with disabilities from living their “ordinary lives in unconventional bodies.”

The second image elicits feelings of guilt and helplessness. Seeing someone else caring for another human being, especially one with a disability, makes me feel guilty not only for all the times I haven’t, but for all the times I haven’t wanted to. This can easily slide into the same problems mentioned above – only treating people with disabilities as objects of charity (or ministry). Not only that, but I feel helpless in the face of the very real struggle many people with disabilities live with on a daily basis. Yet, this can be problematic because it assumes that disability is a problem to be solved. Instead of trying to rid someone of their impairment or disability what should be done instead is removing the (seemingly intentional) systematic barriers erected to keep persons with disabilities from participating fully in their communities.

So what do I do with the very real feelings of pity and guilt I have when faced with a person with a disability? Is it possible to acknowledge these feelings without continuing the oppressive response borne out of them? And the question still remains: why do I feel this way?

I’m not in a position to put to rest all of these questions, but I want to offer some thoughts. First, it is my belief that I (and I’m sure many others) feel this way about seeing persons with disabilities because of a number of factors, not least of which is being reminded of my own weaknesses, finitude, and contingency. We are, all of us, “temporarily able-bodied.” While I agree heartily with Eiesland’s assessment, I don’t think it is put strongly enough.

Every single one of us, if we are not already affected by an impairment or disability, will be. Whether through old age, an illness, or an accident, all of us will come face-to-face with the reality of being disabled.

That isn’t to say that being disabled is in some way a diminishing of our capacity. I think we (myself included) assume that we are already fully capable beings. All of us are limited – none of us are fully able or capable. It is not as if all things are possible and being disabled is a reduction in that possibility or capacity. Rather than believing that there is a dichotomy between ability and dis-ability, it should be understood as a spectrum – it is a matter of degree, not kind.

So when I see someone with a disability and feel pity I am denying my reality.

Second, on a more social level, my guilt is, I believe, in someway connected to my belief (however unconscious) that I am an independent agent in the world capable of living life on my own. While I have spoken elsewhere about this, I just want to point out again that nothing could be further from the truth. We are completely dependent upon others for our survival and continued existence – whether or not we are aware of this. No man, woman, or child is an island.

So when I see someone caring for a person with a disability and feel guilt I am denying my reality.

Lament is the antidote to denial
– Walter Brueggemann

Lastly (for now), while it may seem like I’m advocating for some sort of disavowal of our feelings of pity and guilt, I actually believe the opposite is necessary. It is only by giving voice to those feelings of pity and guilt that we can move beyond the denial of reality. I feel these things when I see people with disabilities. I mourn. Not allowing ourselves to lament the reality of the situation only continues to deny that it even exists. However, the situation is not that we should lament that persons with disabilities exist, but that we continue to run from the truth that persons with disabilities point us to. What I mourn is my own helplessness. 

I get emotional when I see persons with disabilities because deep down I know that I am afraid to die. I cannot face that reality. Only by lamenting my humanity can I fully embrace it, and only by lamenting the lived reality of persons with disabilities can I fully embrace them.

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