14 October 2008

Disability and Normalcy: A Marriage Made in Heaven?

Joe here, folks.

That noise you hear in the background? Let's just say Tommy boy's taken my place as the cart-mover for Christian Cripple, and neither of them was happy about it. (Thank God I paid attention when we learned how to tie knots in Boy Scouts Little K-nigghits way back in the day!)

They both wanted to comment on what I think is a wonderful post by Brent regarding disability and perfection in heaven - particularly in terms of the Resurrection.

Tommy was saying that he deserved to write the post because he'd "hit Brent upside the head with the Summa"; somehow I suspect he'd have ended up spectacularly failing to even connect with his beer stein. Christian Cripple wanted to write about how Brent wasn't taking into account "the disabled experience," whatever exactly that is. (For the record, I think CC is incorrect - if one argues that one must find a "disabled experience," that goes against the idea that we are all the same in the eyes of God, that we all have the same requirements to follow, that we can all feel love, that we are capable of sin [within certain contexts, of course, seeing as we're discussing disabilities in general here], and so on.)

What I want to posit in relation to this discourse is a question that is at once easy and yet ridiculously difficult to pin down, let alone answer.

What of those who are "normal," that is to say, not disabled, but who live with the disabled every day? For me, I'm effectively Christian's family. He cannot get around on that cart on his own - he needs me (or at least today, Tommy) to .... "cart" him about so he can beg for alms. When Christian receives alms, I've always wondered: are the good Christians who give alms in a spirit of charity giving them just to Christian, or are they for me as well? Does Christian's disability extend to me as well by virtue of the fact that I am his limbs? Are we both disabled on our own, and complete when we work together?

Brent discusses the issues of perfection and love. Yes, God commands us to be perfect just as He is perfect, and he rightly reminds us that God is love. This is why the question that I concluded the previous paragraph has always stuck with me. Christian's inability to walk is an impairment, a physical inability to carry out a specific physical function - that is, walking. I, on the other hand, am capable of walking, so I am not impaired - I am "normal." However, is it perhaps better to say that I am, in fact "normal" not because I am physically "fine," but because I am willing to work with Christian to physically follow God's command to be perfect? My working with Christian, my lending him, if you will, of my legs allows him to be physically perfect as far as the constraints of this world allow, and allow him a sense of what society calls "normalcy."

Now, the issue is this. Am I in fact disabling Christian by helping him? Am I really teaching him that perfection is something physical, something tangible, something that can be attained only in this world? If this is indeed the case, then perhaps what Christian is thinking is that his impairment (and disability) are a result of sin and that he can never attain perfection, particularly if he assumes that perfection can only be achieved in this world and that it has little, if no, value in the end.

I think this is where most disabled people must stumble. God commands us to be perfect and that He is love, but how can He "disable" us if He is indeed love? Brent suggests this answer, and I agree with him, that God does not challenge us beyond our capabilities. The challenges in our lives are difficult - indeed, if they were not difficult to some degree, could they really be called challenges in the first place? The intriguing thing is that this argument, to me, stresses the innate normalcy of everyone's lives: we are all normal and equal in that we face challenges; the real difference is in what challenges we face and how we deal with them. His "disabling" of us through challenges is really His way of showing us that He loves us by teaching and reminding us, to recall Augustine, that perfection is what we seek. Perfection is very much like love: it is something quite intangible, yet it is quite achievable - after all, God would not command us to be perfect if it was impossible to achieve.

Perhaps what God is really trying to teach and remind us is that we disable ourselves if we attempt to go through life on our own, to treat it as being something individualistic, something that belongs to us and us alone. As Brent notes near the end of his post, we all have our roles to play: Christian has his role as "a blessing" and as "an opportunity for us to reflect His love." This is not to say that Christian is a passive actor in this world, for he has the "chance to show love and grace by accepting it from us and by teaching us to see the world through [his] eyes." It is a learning experience for all of us, but perhaps even more so for me, because when we return to the original question that began this discussion, namely, where do I fit in? Am I disabled or normal or in-between?

I think that all this discussion about disability in relation to Paradise, to the Resurrection, and the like, it is focusing on physical impairments - deafness, blindness, and so on - without really considering the issue of choice. Christian certainly did not have a choice in becoming crippled - he was simply born that way. I, on the other hand, made a choice to become "crippled" in the sense that by befriending him and working with him and helping him, I have essentially disabled myself by becoming Christian's legs. I am not seen as a complete person, but rather as a pair of limbs, and this is the question: who is more disabled here, Christian, or me? Am I like the wondrous "monsters" Mandeville itemises in his Travels? I honestly don't know.

I realise that this discussion has veered away from the arguments that Brent put forth in his post. This is not to say that I wish to ignore his points, but rather that I wish to push them further. I have certainly been created "ad imaginem Dei," whatever that means, just as much as Christian was.* As Augustine argues, this multiplicity of physical natures in this world is meant to remind us of God's power and His love and His infinite nature. I wonder if perhaps what Augustine was trying to say is that there are, really, an equally wondrous number of ways to achieve God's command and exhortation to be perfect and to remember that He is love.

Sigh. I think it's time to stop here - an empty bottle of "Chaos Theory: Butterfly" just went flying by my head** - time to relieve NDT before he does something grieviously irreparable to himself or Christian.

*Leave it to Joe to mess up the Latin. At least he used it correctly - "in the image of God." NDT

**Only Brent will get this reference, FYI.