I’ve been writing recently about physical simplification–the process of accepting and affirming rather than rejecting or resisting the physical changes that occur in us as we age. I wrote first about accepting changes in appearance, then about accepting changes in physical performance. This post is about what is likely to be the most difficult type of physical simplification: accepting and affirming the disabilities and diseases that may come with advancing age.
Most of us understand that it’s beneficial to accept our limitations and losses, but may have difficulty explaining how such acceptance can benefit us. I currently identify as able-bodied, so I can’t speak from personal experience here. Lewis Joseph Sherrill, whose ideas about simplification are the basis for this series of posts, writes of the benefits of affirming physical diminishment and its attendant sufferings in a way that I found to be vague and unclear, at least initially. He says that out of our suffering “there may come a redemptive gift which is the gift of the suffering yet triumphant self.” What gift is there in disability, either to the sufferer or to others?
In thinking about the gift to the sufferer, I am reminded of Steve (not his real name) a therapy client I worked with about fifteen years ago. He had worked many years in a physically demanding, rather dangerous job that required him to spend months at a time away from home. He was highly regarded in his community and felt proud of what he did. Unfortunately, he developed serious health problems that made it impossible for him to work. It was hard for him to sit at home when he was used to being with his work crew; he reacted with anger and sadness. Then, to compound matters, he was in a serious automobile accident. The other driver died, and he was injured. How could he deal with this on top of all the other losses in his life? It all seemed too much.
Yet, in the course of several months, the accident started to look like a fortuitous event rather than another disaster. The accident was etched in his mind, a high-definition, repeating loop of memory that wouldn’t shut off. “Death was all around me,” he said, “yet I came through.” It seemed to him that he shouldn’t be alive, yet he was. He concluded that God had decided to spare him. God’s mercy became the lens through which he came to view his former job and subsequent disability. He now thought that in his pride he had pushed God aside when he was with the work crew. This was foolish. He could have perished, but God spared him, using illness to bring him off the road and back home. For Steve, his disability and the subsequent accident had become what Sherrill describes as a “redemptive gift,” and he became a “suffering yet triumphant self.”
Can disability be a gift not only to the disabled person but to those around him or her? Steve certainly thought so. While working he was an absent husband and father. During the infrequent times when he was at home, he was distant and imperious. When he was first disabled, he didn’t do much better: he was too absorbed with his own difficulties to be aware of the needs of others. However, once he had come to terms with his disability–once he had simplified–he became much more available to his family, friends, and community. He now devoted quite a bit of his time and energy to three young grandchildren who lived nearby. He talked to them with a gentleness he hadn’t had with his own children. They in turn became sensitive to his needs, fetching things for him he couldn’t get for himself. Steve was no longer a gruff, self-absorbed figure but a loving grandpa living out his affection for them.
I’ve written before about the what 17th century Puritan Richard Baxter thought were the characteristics of those who aged well. Baxter thought that the elderly Christians in his congregation were heroes whom younger members of the church could emulate. He divided those heroes into two groups; those whose heroism was in the active mode and those whose heroism was in the passive mode. Those in the active mode were still out doing good deeds in the church and the community. Those whose heroism was in the passive mode had physical limitations that made such deeds impossible. These elderly saints were heroes because they remained true to their hope, enduring suffering faithfully. As such, they became models of how to live the Christian life in times of hardship. It seems to me that the physical simplification that comes with disability is of this sort, accepting limitations with patience and graciousness, looking hopefully to the life beyond this one where broken bodies will again be made new.