“When I am weak, then I am strong” wrote St Paul to the Corinthians. He was struggling to come to terms with a sense of broken-ness – his “thorn in the flesh”. Each of us has a “thorn” (at least one); it may be physical, but it’s just as likely to be emotional, intellectual, or spiritual. It may manifest as a difficulty in keeping up in the physical world, a degree of awkwardness or dysfunction in community or relationships, feelings of inadequacy, depression etc.
Israel had a limp, Moses stuttered, Saul had anger issues, David had a problem with women. Christians call this “the human condition”, “the wages of sin”, or “wounded creation”. But what if our wounding was a gift from God?
It seems that Paul had poor eyesight (c.f. Gal4;13-5). I’m also partially blind, and when I was a teenager I went into denial about it – largely for social reasons. I pretended that I had no disability and actually got quite good at fooling people! I never knew that I was in denial, I just thought that I was learning to cope and being ‘cool’. I didn’t want to wear glasses in public (particularly in front of girls) because I felt they made me look like a nerd! But it went a lot deeper than that – I was trying not to be that person who had a wounding. I was denying part of the reality of who I am.
My poor eyesight has meant I cannot do some things that others take for granted, like driving a car. It also means that I’m not capable of doing many other things as well or as quickly as most of you can, like drawing a picture, cutting straight with scissors, playing team games, reading the overhead projector in church. This physical limitation affects my life choices at every turn – the kinds of work and leisure activities I do, the places I choose to visit and the location where I live, the ways I spend my time and order my priorities.
Disability also creates stigma, other-ness, difference. When we’re young, particularly, it’s really important to fit in. Children can sometimes be cruel, and tease one another for being different. And adults are sometimes condescending. The media foists on us images of what we ‘should’ be, creating an artificial ‘peer pressure’ and instilling feelings of inferiority in many people. Do you ever remember thinking that you were an outsider and that no-one understood you?
The deepest wound of all is fear. At primary school I was the victim of the school bully. He threatened that if I ever told anyone what he was doing he would know because he could read my mind, so I better shut up! Now even at eight years old I was pretty sure that people couldn’t really read minds, but fear over-rode rationality. I was so desperate to please him that I started asking his permission before I did anything. Ever since that time I’ve had trouble trusting the validity of my own decisions.
Now, in fact, I make lots of good decisions (like agreeing to write this article…!?) My rational mind knows this and I can assemble evidence to back it up. But there’s a darker, subtle, negative influence that kicks in without warning. A voice that says “You’re going to get it wrong”, or “They won’t like you if you do/say that”, and this voice can make me freeze, make me timid, make me procrastinate and stew in confusion. Fear, too, you see, is a great disability. Fear probably lurks somewhere in all of us, and must be recognised, named, brought out into the light, and strategies found to deal with it.
Many of us are afraid of the unknown; of picking up the ringing phone, or – even worse – picking it up to make a call. I know somebody who sits in his car for 20 minutes psych-ing himself up before he can go and knock on a stranger’s door – and his job is in sales! Often in face-to-face situations the fear of rejection causes us to leave much important stuff unsaid.
God’s love is the only real antidote to fear (c.f. 1Jn 4;18).
Many of us are dis-empowered by the stories we believe. We have all created mythologies about ourselves; some parts of the story are true, some are not. We have built up these myths over a lifetime of listening to and looking at the lives of others, both real and fictional. All the books and movies we’ve taken in, the teaching we’ve received, the role-models who’ve lived with and around us, the stories that others have spoken to and about us (true and not true), have shaped our personal landscape. We’ve developed a narrative of the person we’d like to be, and the person we think we are. We’ve tried to be ‘like this one’, and ‘not like that one’. We’ve fantasized thousands of “what if?” scenarios; dreamed dreams in which we are always the star or the victim. Most of these fantasies are unrealistic, and so we carry a secret burden of failure, never having been able to live up to our ideals.
When I was a kid I used to go to the movies most Saturday afternoons with my friends from the neighbourhood – it didn’t really matter much what was on. Afterwards we’d all go to the empty section at the bottom of our street to play, and almost invariably we’d ‘act out’ the story we’d just seen, each taking roles, and sometimes arguing about who was going to be the hero and who the ‘baddie’. This habit stayed with me and I’ve spent much of my life trying to be somebody else.
As a young believer/musician I found myself trying to sing or share my testimony in the same style I heard ‘famous’ people like Larry Norman and Barry McGuire do it. How often have you heard a local preacher, who normally has a kiwi twang, suddenly slip into an American drawl in the pulpit, mimicking the speaking style and gestures of some influential pastor or evangelist? We’re all such sheep!
But there is, in reality, only one person we’re ideally suited to role-play – ourselves. No-body else can be you as well as you can. In fact, being you is the one thing you can truly excel at. You are unique and have a contribution to the human race (and to the building of God’s kingdom) that no-one else can offer. God made you that way. Unfortunately, most of us have not been well groomed for being ourselves.
“You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free” said Jesus. The truth is not always what we expected, and it’s sometimes even unpleasant, but it is liberating, and it can strengthen and even heal us. So, where is your wounding?
Do you remember when you were a child and you fell over and skinned your knees? You ran inside to mum, but you pulled away when she tried to bathe the cuts with antiseptic. You didn’t want anybody to touch the pain, and yet how you wanted it to go away! Wounding makes us hypersensitive, makes us hold back, even from the thing which can heal us.
When we are able to be comfortable with the person we are – unashamedly ourselves, and not embarrassed about having weakness, being human – then we possess one of the greatest of attributes, integrity. The Oxford Dictionary defines integrity as; “wholeness; soundness; uprightness; honesty”. Integrity is an attitude, a way of being in the world, a choice to live as our true selves, “warts and all”, without fear.
A couple of years ago, my spiritual director asked me whether I’d ever considered my poor eyesight as a gift. I hadn’t. In fact, although there’s no rational explanation for this, at first I found the idea a bit uncomfortable (such is the depth of our pre-conditioning). However, I ‘sat with’ the idea for a while, talked to God about it, and eventually the penny dropped. I am an expert on human weakness – it’s something I have a lifetime’s experience at! So, how do you turn a curse into a blessing? How can I make this wealth of knowledge work to my advantage? And, hopefully, the advantage of others, too.
This article may be one way of doing that.
Human beings have a remarkable capacity for adaptation. Part of the way that we learn to cope with weakness is to strengthen other faculties to compensate. For instance, a person crippled from the waist down is likely to develop unusually strong muscles in their arms and torso. In my case, because I’m a musician, but I’m unable to physically ‘read’ music, I’ve developed a particularly good ‘ear’ (the ability to play spontaneously what I hear), something which classically trained players can be weak on. Their ‘weakness’ is that they tend to depend on their eyes at the expense of their ears and intuition. One skill isn’t better than the other, they’re just different, and they both arise from a juxtaposition of weakness and strength.
Some people have told me that I seem to have an empathetic nature, am a good listener, that they feel comfortable talking to me about ‘sensitive, personal stuff’. Perhaps these are some of the positive fruits of being a damaged, fragile creature. Perhaps one wounded spirit can recognise another…
God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you … (my) power is made perfect through weakness”. Paul came to accept this mystery. God wants us to live a fulfilled and fruitful life. But the paradox is, it all begins when we acknowledge – and, in fact, embrace – our weakness. Jesus chose to become weak, so that he could heal us. His wounded hands, touched by Thomas, were proof of his power over death.
Human weakness is one gift we all have in common. Our infirmity is a reminder to ourselves, and a sign to the world, that God’s salvation is necessary for everyone. So learn to value your wounds highly, and use them well.