A friend who also experiences chronic pain recently shared with me her discouragement when people tell her, “You’re too young to have these issues!” I know how she feels. Although I appreciate people’s care and concern, telling me that I’m too young to have health issues implies that what I am experiencing is abnormal. “Normal” young people shouldn’t have health issues. I disagree. I think it’s time we all embrace our abnormality.
Having a “norm” or an “ideal” is not always a bad thing. The Bible obviously sets out values and role models – “ideals” that we ought to model our lives after. But are Biblical values really informing our ideas of what is a “normal body?” Or are these norms coming from elsewhere?
In actuality, the Western medical model is one key source from which we measure what is normal for our bodies. Western medicine identifies illnesses, disabilities, and pain as symptoms of dysfunction, thus categorizing these conditions as “abnormal.” Western medicine quantifies bodily symptoms against measurable standards. Your blood pressure, weight, flexibility, platelet count, etc. should all be within a certain range, otherwise there is something wrong. This logic seems natural, but if we take a step back outside of our Western-centric view, we see that there are other ways of thinking about the body.
Chinese medicine, for example, views the body as a constant interplay of Yin and Yang forces. One writer describes the balance which Chinese doctors seek as “a dynamic equilibrium that is appropriate and specifically possible in the particular circumstance and development phase of a person’s life. There is no standard or absolute – what is health for one person may be sickness in another. There is no notion of ‘normal’ Yin-Yang – only the unique challenges and possibilities of each human life.” In other words, Chinese medicine takes a contextual approach to health; it does not measure individuals against an outside standard.
Deborah Beth Creamer, a theologian and disability scholar, provides yet another perspective with her “limits model” for understanding bodies, disability, and health. Creamer’s model arose out of reflection about what disability can tell us about the human condition and about God. If we take a Western medical approach and label disability as a simply a deviation from “normal” bodily functions, then we are effectively closing off any opportunity to learn from the experience of disability.
But disability can teach us a lot about ourselves and about God. As Creamer explains, disability reveals the limitedness and dependency of all human beings, physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. In her model, she asserts that limits are 1) unsurprising characteristics of humanity, 2) an intrinsic aspect of the human experience, and 3) good, not evil.
Seen from the “limits” perspective, disability, illness, and pain are not “abnormal” but a normal part of life. The experiences themselves may not be good, but the fact that we have limits, that our bodies are sensitive and react to negative inputs, and that we cannot push our bodies to do everything we wish they could is definitely good. All of these things are part of being human.
Furthermore, suffering – physical and otherwise – is totally within the Biblical norm – Jesus predicted it for his followers and the early Church was born out of it. This is not to say that we should go out and seek suffering, but, if it comes, we should not be surprised.
Likewise, when our bodies exhibit pain, illness, and limitation, we should not be surprised. Instead of thinking that the health issues we encounter are abnormal and lamenting them, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on our shared human limitations, realize our dependency on God, and thank him for the ways he sustains our lives and bodies.