This weekend I’ve found myself four hours away from home, hiding from a bunch of unfamiliar people on a cozy bed upstairs. Last night I drove to one of my best friend, Kirsten’s, house to help her set up for her graduation party, which is now going on downstairs. And like a good introvert with social anxiety, I’m upstairs reading a book recommended for seminary instead of mingling with the unfamiliar faces.
The lovely thing about coming the night before the party is that I had the pleasure of having breakfast in the morning with her and her parents, Jeff and Kathryn. Her dad made his Saturday breakfast special- waffles with ice cream and strawberries on top (it was fantastic, 10/10 would recommend ice cream for breakfast) and I got to chat with them before we started getting ready for the party. Over breakfast, her mom, who is on the long road to recovery from a brain injury, made a comment that got my attention. She was talking about ways she copes with not only her personal struggles in recovering, but also the ways others marginalize her because of her brain injury. Friends who used to share their feelings with her withhold their thoughts because they don’t want to burden her, and one woman was shocked and nervous when she realized that Kathryn was driving unaccompanied that morning. When Kathryn was describing how she felt when these other people withheld from their regular relationship, or tried to baby her because of her brain injury, she described it as “making them into a non-person”. She then went onto describe some of the ways she motivates herself to get through these tough times, the one which I related to the most was dressing and presenting herself well.
I found Kathryn’s description of being made to feel like a “non-person” fascinating, and I can understand it to an extent. I’m making my way through Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance right now, and one of the points he makes to correct the common Western understanding of the Trinity to understanding God as primarily a relationship, or relational being. If I could postulate a bit more into Kathryn’s words, I think this is one of the reasons she felt like her humanity was being robbed by these acts. Her friends who withdrew from relationship with her, either by taking away relationality or by not letting her express her relationality, ended up mitigating her humanity precisely because humanity is expressed through relationship, in the reflection of divinity. It seems to me that we are made to give and take, talk and listen, prepare food and eat food, and taking that away from someone without mutual understanding cuts at the core of their self-understanding. If one cannot be, are they a being at all? If she is not allowed to be growing, failing, talking, listening, helped or helping, I can understand how she feels deprived of her humanity.
And in the pursuit of her humanity she began to talk about dressing. About those morning when it feels impossible to get up, and her brain is more counterproductive than helpful, she makes a point to get dressed. To do her hair and wear something nice. And when she talks about it, she does not only do it for herself, but for others. If she looks like she is getting better, others will treat her like she is- she can gain some of her humanity back this way. I resonated with this. While she was talking, I took a moment to examine myself. I dress myself well. With a few exceptions, I pretty much do so every day. It’s kind of my thing. When Kathryn connected presenting well with a desire to be perceived as functional, it clicked that this is something that I do too.
The Lord knows I would be happy to wear my Birkenstocks or clogs every day if I had the chance, but I withhold from doing that because I want to be perceived as capable and functional. In between my allergies, blood sugar problems, breathing problems, anxiety, and depression, I am constantly monitoring myself to make sure that I stay functional so that I can participate in society, whether that is my job, going to a restaurant, or driving from Washington to Oregon to see my friend. I am afraid that one day I will be at work and somehow I will have an allergic reaction, and then everyone will see what a thin pretense I keep up to seem functional. What I’m really afraid of is that one day someone will decide I am not really functional or useful. I don’t know what I’d do then.
This is where my faith comes tromping in. I very clearly define my own worth as relational functionality- I want to be useful to someone other than myself, and to fail to do that would undermine my identity. It’s a very ableist idea- that my worth is impeded by my inability to “do”. One of the most common things Jesus taught and showed was that any human has intrinsic worth, regardless of their status or abilities. The leprous man and bleeding woman were casted out from society for being unclean, and therefore unable to work, marry and reproduce, or in any other way contribute to society, except by being beggars. This did not stop Jesus from seeing them. It is uncomfortable for me that my worth does not increase with my productivity and effort, but it is comforting that I could never do anything or become anything that would render me worthless. When I feel my façade fading, and my mess becoming exposed, I try to think of Lazarus. Even the dead and gone are not outside the expansion of divine compassion. And as Thomas Merton taught us, it is the act of the lover loving the loved that reveals that all parties are worthy.
Praise the God to who makes us.
Praise the God who makes us whole.
Praise the God who understands wholeness as emptiness.
Praise the God who emptied themself and became unmade.
Praise the God who is making us again.