When Our Bodies Say No

http://towlie36.deviantart.com/art/Fetal-Position-Sketch-251515909I am taking a day of rest today to recover from a lingering sickness. I rescheduled work duties and cancelled my evening plans to instead drink lots of liquids and sleep. It’s inconvenient and unproductive, but at the same time I feel deeply satisfied that for once I am listening and responding to my body’s protests.

The high value our society places on productivity and constant forward momentum (you should always be going somewhere, even if you don’t know where that is), makes it difficult for us to listen when our bodies say no. We barrel forward through headaches and fatigue, because it’s more important to get things done.  We even pride ourselves for being able to muscle through an illness without taking a day off. Unfortunately, the readily available supply of pain relievers, sleep medicines, and caffeine can feed our neglect, allowing us to mute our symptoms without fully stopping to address the underlying issue, whether it’s simply the need for rest or a more drastic lifestyle change.

If we learn to listen, though, the body’s finely-tuned feedback system of pain signals and discomfort can become a gift, instead of a curse.

Our bodies bear a lot for us. Everyone has stories of the times when they pushed through one or two frantic weeks of final exams or leading up to a project deadline and then got sick right after it was done. Our bodies can be amazingly adept at cooperating with us, enduring sleep deprivation and grueling schedules when things just need to get done.

But sometimes, our bodies stage a “holy protest.” When we take ourselves and our work too seriously, when we ignore God’s command to keep the Sabbath, when we forget that we are creatures with finite resources, our bodies have a way of bringing us back to reality. In times of illness and forced rest, it can be a humbling relief to realize that the show can go on without us. We don’t need to suck it up and be supermen and superwomen all the time.  We can drop the ball because we are not the only one holding it – we have a community of people who love and take care of us, and even if there are times when that community seems non-existent, ultimately we have a God who neither faints nor grows weary, who gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless (Isaiah 40:28-29).

Kathleen Norris has noted that God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy sits right up there with the commandments to not murder and not commit adultery. I think our bodies have a better sense than our conscious selves of the gravity of this commandment. To not obey is not only to neglect our health and well-being; repeated refusal to rest becomes an act of willful pride, which says to God, “I can do this on my own, I am self-sufficient, my agenda is more important than your command.”

On a final note, there are times when our bodies say no that do not solely point to individual hubris. As the American society in particular, and as human beings in general, we have so elevated our own interests above listening to the body of the earth and the bodies of the most vulnerable that the consequences are inevitable. Environmental decay and toxins in our food, water, and air are the results (to name a few) of our failure to faithfully steward creation and instead pursue economic growth above all else. We have not given the earth a chance to rest, and our bodies, which come from the earth, suffer as a result. We breathe polluted air, we ingest harmful chemicals, and, unsurprisingly, our bodies say no.

May the “holy protest” of our bodies direct our focus once again to God’s command to keep the Sabbath, not just for our individual well-being, but for the good of all creation.


It’s Normal to Be Abnormal

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.”[1] 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.[2]  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.

[1] Ted Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver (2000, Contemporary Books, p. 19).

[2] Debora Beth Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology (2010, New York: Oxford University Press).