Wednesday, January 9, 2013

On asking “why” disability came

I ran across something recently from the Church Handbook on disability:

Leaders and members should not attempt to explain why the challenge of a disability has come to a family.  They should never suggest that a disability is a punishment from God (see John 9:2-3).  Nor should they suggest that it is a blessing to have a child who has a disability. (21.1.26)

When I first read this I was startled, but as I thought about it I could see it is very wise.  Trying to answer the “why” question can lead to all kinds of insensitive comments.

Disability is hard enough to deal with without a manufactured synthetic burden of guilt or blessing.  If we are the one experiencing the disability, guilt about it may paralyze us in despair if we feel we deserve it, or it may provoke anger at God if we feel we don’t.  If we feel we should consider it a blessing, this dismisses and perhaps even denies the difficulties we face in such a way that we will feel frustrated with our challenges.

Meeting others with disability can give us a gnawing uncomfortable feeling that the same thing could easily happen to us or our family members.  We may try to quiet those fears by saying to ourselves that it could not happen because we are somehow more righteous.  We may scrutinize others’ lives looking for their faults, seeking a connection between those faults and their disabilities so we can say it is a punishment.  We may distance ourselves, as if disability is something “catching."

Thinking someone else’s disability is a blessing from God is an even more subtle way of distancing ourselves.  When we tell ourselves that the disability is a blessing, we try to convince ourselves that things are not as bad as they look such that we don’t feel obligated to offer support, encouragement, or help.  After all, they don’t need it because they are blessed, right?

I really like the scripture cited:

And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
 Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. (John 9:2-3)

The disciples want to know who is to blame for the man’s disability.  Jesus has this fabulous perspective.  Disability is not a punishment for sin in the pre-mortal life.  It’s not the man’s fault.  Neither is it the fault of the parents.  And further, Jesus doesn’t blame God for it either.  It seems like finding meaning in disability isn’t about looking at the past; it’s about looking to the future as an opportunity to see how the works of God will appear.  Of course, the rest of this story is that Jesus healed the man, which definitely manifested a miraculous work of God, but other works of God include how a disabled person uses their life for good and the kind of choices they make in response to their limitations.

Not attempting to explain why a disability comes is good in a few other ways that I can think of.  First, people most involved have to come to terms with it on their own, and that usually comes from the experience of living with it.  If meaning is imposed from the outside, the soul doesn’t own it and will usually reject it.  Second, making statements about the reason why God would allow disability to come to a family is kind of cheeky, since we are mere mortals and don’t know all the mind and purposes of God in all His creations.

However, we can try to become more observant to see how the works of God are made manifest, both through miracles of healing and miracles of progression.

It seems to me that the first major work of God made manifest is the parents who adapt to a child’s special needs and nurture day after day after day…

From this come other works of God, found in those who have disabilities:
·      Compensatory gifts—Development of amazing strengths to compensate for the disability.  Many of these gifts we would have no idea the possibility of them existed.  How would we know about the possibilities for expression through sign language if no one had hearing impairments?  How would we know it was possible to have such sensitivity of hearing and touch if there were no blind?
·      Optimism—Needed to surmount the huge challenges and barriers to living a better life.
·      Work – No progress is made without it. 

Other ways the works of God have been made manifest are seen in society as a response to disability:
·      Intellectual curiosity, which has led to better understanding of the nature of certain disabilities and training for coping and compensating.
·      Service by helpful individuals.
·      Creation of organizations to advocate for and educate society about disabilities to eliminate social stigma and misunderstandings.
·      Creative use of resources to create aids or cures. 

The final work of God we can look forward to is the healing in the day of resurrection.
Perhaps the question to ask in the face of disability is not “Why?” but “Now what?”

In my own life, I was diagnosed with a learning disability called Attention Deficit Disorder when I was around 15 or 16 and started taking medicine for it.  I hardly ever call attention to it or mention it because I don’t like to label myself or use it as an excuse, so it is usually a surprise to people when they find out.  I mention it now to point out one of the ways that God’s works have been made manifest in me, which is in this blog.  Surprisingly enough, one of the compensatory gifts of having ADD is the ability to hyperfocus on activities that I am particularly interested in, and it just so happens that I am particularly interested in the scriptures and writing about them.

Do you or a family member or a friend have a disability?  How have you seen the works of God manifest?


Ramona Gordy said...

Thank you for this post Micheala,I love your message.
There was a little girl in my Primary class last year, who is a hero to me. When her and her father came to our ward, they were reeling from a tragic loss of a wife and mother.
The little girl was not born with a disability, but because of the trauma of losing her mom, she stopped speaking, and literally stopped growing and functioning. In medical terms its called failure to thrive.
So she came to us, very angry, and mistrustful. She had problems with her speech and behavior, so we thought she was deaf, but she wasn't. We thought that she was mentally challenged, but she isn't.

So she turned 8 and she was preparing for baptism, but she chose to wait until she was 9. Her dad baptized her, and then a change began. People started to love her, children started to befriend her and protect her. She is so beautiful.
So in my class, the final primary before Young Women's,she changed more. Most of her teachers spoke down to her,or ignored her, but I decided that I wanted her to talk, and read, and contribute.
I called her my rock star.I realize now that she was incubating, and her heart was healing, and through speech therapy, and family therapy, and just plain love, she is overcoming her "disability".

I believe that in that great council, when we promised to follow the Savior, we were given an opportunity to see the life we would have, even to the point of having physical challenges and mental struggles.We shouted for joy and the morning stars sang.
I believe the Savior gave us everything we needed to overcome them, and the ability to endure. We just had to choose it and trust in Him.

urinalsoftheworld said...

Great insights. I think sometimes our well-intended attempts to comfort someone can cheapen or trivialize their trials. It's not for us to try to explain away anything. As Ramona suggests, "plain love" is never the wrong answer. Thanks to both of you.

Michaela Stephens said...

Ramona, that's so neat that you were able to draw out that little girl and help her progress!

Sometimes I think that shouting for joy in pre-earth life about the prospect of having trials was a bit naive, but I can't imagine that the Lord wouldn't tell us ahead of time about the difficulties we'd have too. I suppose that our shouting for joy was in anticipation of the things we'd learn through disability about following the Savior.

Yes, Reid, plain love is never the wrong answer. Usually validating the emotions is helpful, saying, "Yes, it is hard, it's so hard."