The Wisdom of Human Vulnerability

 

The Wisdom of Human Vulnerability—
                           Disability: The Tie Which Binds
 
                                                     by Mary Jane Owen
 
 
A learned man of God, John Car­dinal O'Con­nor, offered this guid­ance: speak from the heart of the experi­encing of hu­man vul­nera­bility and wear your dis­abili­ties like a man­tle about your shoulders.
 
For two decades I have been a partici­pant ob­server, con­templating our mutual fragili­ty and struggling to comprehend the foolish­ness of God's insis­tence on placing our precious souls into such fragile con­tainers. Our ef­forts to avoid recognition of our frailty speaks loudly of our sense that God's choice was an over­sight and certainly impru­dent. The never-ending search for the Fountain of Eternal Youth tells the story of our dismay. We find it difficult to accept the reality that we face even­tual physio­logical disin­tegra­tion.
 
This paper suggests that some of the conceptu­al lenses through which we have traditionally viewed our own and other's vulnerabili­ties dis­tort and frighten us. The old prescrip­tions blur our vision of our need to foster inter­depen­den­cy. There is little need for the fear which stalked our ancestors’ nightmares. Cur­rent med­ical and rehabilitation technology and tech­niques can assist our brothers and sisters, sons and daugh­ters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, to remain interactive and involved with those whom they love and who love them as vari­ous func­tions dimin­ish or are lost. I do not pro­pose an end to our efforts to reduce suffering, only that we approach those chal­lenges with deep­ened aware­ness that vulnerability may be an es­sential component in God's plan for us.
 
The judgement, “I'd rath­er be dead than dis­abled,” is a painful re­mind­er of the low value placed upon our lives. And this trou­ble­some refrain collides with our views about the sanctity of life. For it fuels those out­moded fears about unwant­ed dependency which are associated with “infir­mities” and moves people to choose death over incon­venient life. Wheth­er a given eugenics cam­paign endorses eutha­nasia, infan­ticide or amniocentesis and abor­tion, potential col­leagues are easy prey to each retelling of the ancient and no longer appro­pri­ate terror. The assaults upon life move forward because so few of us are knowledgeable or comfortable enough to speak out positively about the power of the powerless and the po­tential of those who are disabled.
 
And the pious reinforce this negativity as they mutter, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” failing to recognize the verdict they have leveled against those who live with disabilities and who may still be well within the circle of God's grace and love.
 
Against this sketchy background, let us quickly examine a few conceptual lenses which will allow us to glimpse the potential of those with disabilities:
 
1.A shifting paradigm replaces the medi­cal model, which sees those with impair­ments as “pa­tients” whose needs must be met in “spe­cial” ways, with a political socio-eco­nomic alter­native which con­cep­tualizes the environment as the han­dicap­ping fac­tor.
 
2.A new definition asserts: “Disabilities” are the normal and anticipated outcome of the risks, strains and stresses of the living process itself. Therefore, the con­dition ceases to be merely an individual tragedy and becomes an expectation within any community.
 
3.The symbol of the Cross is essential to our Faith, but we are the Easter people who look beyond Calvary to the sunrise of that glorious dawn when the heavy stone blocking our view of His power and grace was rolled away. The old association of disabilities with the suffer­ing Christ can be expanded to include the miracles of reha­bilitation as small reminders of His Resur­rection. Thus we confirm we are a part of His Body and our souls strive to prove His power.
 
4.Each time words of pity target those with disabilities the message of inclusion is blunted. Pity limits, shames and never elevates the one toward whom it is di­rected. It is an unwanted projection of society's fear and discomfort. Respect­ful compassion and mutual recognition of our shared fragility must replace it if we are to become united as people of God.
 
5.The fifth lens is pivotal if we are to justify the challenge of this new orientation, for a new prescription calls for a lens which can focus on the power of human vul­nerabili­ty. Until we recognize this trait as valu­able to the health of any organi­zation, we will lack motivation to alter our current patterns of exclusion and separateness.
 
Our vulnerability, which has been en­coded into our gene pool, is the cata­lyst which brings us into com­munity and church with re­newed recognition that we need each oth­er and our Lord. When God tied the gift of life to the trait of vulnerability, He may have given us the only incentive which could counter our ten­dency toward disregard of the rights and value of oth­ers. When we see ourselves in our peers, we are joined in a bond which comes from the heart. When we are unaware of or deny our intercon­nectedness, we move about function­ing as if our souls had been placed in high im­pact plastic bodies. We tend to become alien­ated and soli­tary, mistaking independence as the source of power. We take a “Kleenex” ap­proach toward life, justifying its disposal when it becomes less than perfect.
 
It is through synergy and mutual aid that com­munities are built and maintained. Without the evidence of our own weakness and fragility, many of us would ignore the message of unity and interaction. When Christ called upon us to seek the safety of the fold, the message was of our need, not our ability to thrive in isolation.
 
On a personal level, I saw no value in vulnera­bility when it began to creep upon me in 1972. I was focused on a professorial title. Everything of importance seemed tied to my visual acuity and photographic memory. I was a brilliant scholar and now my opportunities were slipping away as my vision faded.
 
An academic colleague tried to comfort me with these words, “When Caesar Chavez goes out to organize the migrant farm workers, he al­ways asks for a match although he does­n't smoke.” Such a simple re­quest pricked the surface of that bub­ble of ten­sion which sepa­rates us from each other. A modest need was the “excuse” for starting a serious dialogue.
 
I heard no comfort in my friend's words. He was telling me that as a blind wom­an I'd have to go through life asking for help. That image had nothing to do with my view of power and auton­omy. Not sur­prising­ly, I lapsed into self pity, “I'd rather be dead than have to go around asking for help all the time!” But God had many more lessons for me than I could have imag­ined.
 
And so one day I had to travel alone to another city. I moved through the doorway into the huge bus terminal barely touching the floor with my white cane. I hoped no one would no­tice I was blind. The trip to the counter was unevent­ful but then I had to utter the dreaded words. The result was worse than I'd imag­ined. The man pulled down the microphone and out boomed my embarrassment: “Will someone please help this blind woman catch the bus to Sacramen­to?”
 
The cavernous space had seemed oddly silent. One knew there were people waiting on the hard benches but no one spoke. Then sud­den­ly all that changed. “Here, let me help you to a seat,” someone said. And as we passed the previously silent bodies, there was a buzz of chatter. “I'm going to Placerville to see my grandchildren.” And I was greeted with the news of a young man's trip to Quincy to check out the college there. The room which seconds before had been like a tomb of anonymity was trans­formed into a gathering place for friendly travel­lers, all sharing a few words to ease the bore­dom of their wait on a journey to somewhere else.
 
That was not the final lesson. I was a slow learner but with each venture realization grew. When I gave myself permission to ask for help, those around me were given the “excuse” they needed to feel needed. Amazing, but my vul­nerabilities were the catalyst which gave others permission to unite: to behave as community. “How come you know so many people?” “Be­cause I have to move out each day, trusting that minor miracles of happenstance will occur again today. When depending upon chance encounters allows for one's freedom to come and go, there are few strangers in one's path.”
 
When people move out into their world in such a manner, they are catalysts and confir­mations of mutual need. Can there be any doubt we need that fragility which can unite us? For, as a society, we are sickened by alie­nation and solitude. But until we throw away some of the dysfunctional myths and fears, we will not profit from the richness of God's gift.
 
Too many individuals with disabilities have awaited their turn to worship and to serve their Lord. Too often the Good News has been pro­claimed behind barriers we could not over­come and our potential contributions have gone unno­ticed. Upon signing the Americans with Disabil­ities Act, our President told the thou­sands as­sem­bled on the White House lawn that this law was a sledge­hammer with which to smash the an­cient walls which had blocked 43 million peo­ple from fulfilling their dreams and offering their gifts to the nation. That wall of prejudice and fear extends around the globe, separating and segregating.
 
A united resolve to smash the old con­ceptual lenses which blurred our vision of the power of human vulnera­bility can destroy the old preju­dices. We must constantly remind our­­selves that God's gift of life is placed in frag­ile earthen vessels to a power­ful pur­pose. We have only to recognize and cele­brate that reality and it will free us from past fears.
 
For it is our common recogni­tion of inter­depen­dency which weaves the threads of our societ­ies together. Each time one of us feels needed and essential to another, the threads of that interaction are rein­forced and the fabric which holds us together as Church and as soci­ety is powerfully strength­ened.
 
There is wisdom in vulnerabili­ty and it will bind us together power­fully, if we will only look at the reality with fresh vision.
 
May God bless our mutual crusade.
 
 
 
This article is the complete text of the paper delivered by Mary Jane Owen to the Seventh International Conference of the Pontifi­cal Coun­cil for Pastoral Care to Health Care Workers in Vatican City on November 20, 1992.
 
 
 
 
 
                          This article may be reprinted provided you credit the source:
                Opening Doors, National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities