Embracing Our Fragility in the Presence of Affliction | Sojourners

Embracing Our Fragility in the Presence of Affliction

Sharon V. Betcher on hope for souls and societies once the pandemic ends.

AS WE ENTER the second year of the pandemic, craving juices our throats. We just want to feel alive again: to hear spontaneous laughter and song; to lay our eyes on one another without the mediation of Zoom; to smell a grandchild’s neck without the filter of a mask; to brush against the crowd, breaching the numbness of isolation. We just want to get back to normal, we say. But normal, as science writer Ed Yong observes, is precisely what led to this. Even epidemiologist Michael Osterholm worries that we are “trying to get through this [pandemic] with a vaccine without truly exploring our soul.” Curiously, that puts the depths of soul on the public health agenda.

Insight therapy

COVID-19 HAS BEEN an epiphany. It has given humanity a first comprehensive, planetary broad brush-up. The pandemic likely was set in motion through ecological disruption, when viruses were loosed from their wild hosts into human sociality, then proceeded to shatter along our nation’s habituated social fault lines—economic, racialized, gendered, and generational.

Every aspect of the coronavirus pandemic first exposed and then exacerbated the United States’ devastating inequalities, reports one investigative journalist after another. The biases of societal racism, classism, and sexism become, in turn, endemic to housing patterns, employment, and access to health care and healthy food. Compounded by the accumulated effects of environmental inequality, such biases become diseases of the body and its generations. Those we cheer on as “essential workers,” the U.S. has come to recognize, were often people whom it first dehumanized—people of color and women working in precarious scenarios of exposure and at low wages. As our planet heats up, each consequent emergency threatens to exacerbate the same fault lines.

While COVID-19 has turned out to be a far more cruciform epiphany than we might have desired, it has, if we are lucky, shaken our sense of invulnerability: Our well-being is entangled, one with another—from how we treat the environment to wearing masks and social distancing. Bodies aren’t born innocent, but from birth carry unequal burdens.

I was, in years past, swept up in infection and have been left crip, perhaps by this: milk, which, as a child of subsistence farming, I drank fresh off the pasture. Given winds sweeping from the Southwest over the upper Midwest in the late 1950s, that milk was laced with irradiated particulate from the nuclear test flats. A failed thyroid, that fuse of the immune system, could not manage a superbug infection, and so I live as an “unprostheticized” amputee. If others revulse, this canyon on my hip is likewise an epiphanic fracture.

Jesus’ theology of desire

AS LIFE SLOWLY opens after quarantine, it will be as tempting to withdraw our gaze from the epiphany of this past year as it is to avert eyes from my presence. What makes this christiform epiphany less than merely dystopic, given the planet’s rising peril, is the fact that we can learn to swim against the affective tides of disaffection and revulsion that have, until COVID-19, hidden under the oceanic surface of “normal.” These biases, these geosocial and economic fault lines, are the consequences of our behavior toward each other. Like the rest of our national infrastructure, we can as humans “build back better.” We can critically examine the tree rings of flesh, these archaeological “tells,” and share the precarious vulnerability of flesh more justly.

Christianity too has ways of training up the muscles of soul in the presence of pain. Theologian Dorothee Sölle surmised that the gospels might have been—given that Christianity is a theology of desire (hence, love) and given that stories generate affect or feeling—“written for our instruction.” As narrative forms created to rouse passion through meditative practice, passion accounts begin a process of transference whereby loving the God who is in pain—that is, Jesus as suffering—we begin to open ourselves to feel all flesh in the reality of its extremes. Rather than launching our aspirations heavenward, these passion practices help us develop the arteries of love—as justice, generosity, and hospitality—within our civic space. By mindfully breathing into our relations, we might swerve the taste for “normal” and grow the moral arc of justice across the quaking fault zones.

In the presence of affliction

COVID-19 WILL LEAVE us a swath of bodies in pain—bodies that are long-haulers or concave with grief, the loss of a job, a business, or “a future.” Persons are exhausted from balancing too many intimate care relations with work, little money, and inadequate food. America’s national character has long demanded we push pain out of sight, out of mind—whether through technological marvel, making economics “the” index of well-being or consigning devastation to “third world literature,” as Amitav Ghosh reminds us. Pauline streams of Christianity, wherein pain is owed to “the bondage to decay,” do likewise (Romans 8:21)—as if life could avoid the wheel of transience.

Conditioned to progress and valorizing overcoming, our culture remains, spiritually speaking, unskillful toward bodies in pain. Someone as visibly crip as I am quickly learned that under the surface of normalcy hides a disgust impulse threatening “good riddance”—hence, ancient practices of exposure or even, in our era, murder. (Think: “hate crimes.”) We have witnessed just such disgust exercised against vulnerability when some refuse to accept mask-wearing as something we do for the other. A political system devoted to protecting its own “economic engine” has shown its callousness toward elders (“It’s just old peoples’ flu!”), if not always also earth’s elemental others. Whether making “gut reactions” a theological bottom line or redlining persons out of conditions of well-being, spasms of disgust control the affective gates of “interbeing.”

While disgust in the forms of bias, bigotry, and disregard may be among its more obvious guises, disgust also acts like a propellant within the desire for “wholeness.” As wholeness was valued among modern hopes for progress, it likewise migrated into biblical interpretation and Christian liturgies. Yet the racial lines of modernity were affected as an aesthetic analytics whereby wholeness was sorted from what was construed as “the degenerate types”—“two little feet” versus disability, normal versus abnormal, and white and male over persons of color and female. Despite “the enlightenment” of reason, we have unskillfully allowed disgust to pull us neighbor from cosmopolitan neighbor. Using disgust, hidden in the guise of aesthetic taste, the fragile conditions of flesh have been offloaded along the very fault lines evidenced in and exacerbated by the pandemic.

Remaking our conditioned aversions

TWENTIETH-CENTURY FRENCH philosopher and worker-activist Simone Weil found a little-used spiritual practice within Christian texts: “Disgust in all its forms is one of the most precious trials sent to a [person]” as a way to work on the self. Weil suspected that spiritually working through the roiling nausea of disgust—not naturalizing the gut reaction so as to sort in-group versus out-group sociality—would bring us into sacred encounter. Meditating on Psalm 22:24, “For [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted,” Weil surmised that love could learn to move through the wakes of disgust with equanimity to remake our conditioned aversions. To break “the law of gravitation by which humans attack that which revulses us” would be, as Weil saw it, to inhabit the soul of Christ.

To love Jesus is to remember him too as crip and to work justice off of the fractures of his body. Jesus was a Roman torture victim, and as the gospels remember him, one among the Isaianic lineage of “suffering slaves” (not congenial “servants”), like those for whom he agitated.

Nothing was as true of slavery in the ancient world as its “absolute corporeal vulnerability.” (Does that not ring true to today’s “essential workers”?) And nothing then so marked the slave as disfigurement—the hobbled foot, the punctured ear, the muted voice, the body worked over and worn. In that world as in this one, redemption required not a cure (in other words “wholeness”), which simply moves a body from one side of the caste hierarchy to the other. Rather, redemption required and requires us to swerve the calculus of empire, which buffers the well-being of some bodies from the fragility of flesh by making others bear the brunt of corporeality. Where empire created economic fault lines and exacerbated those both ethnic and gendered, Christians seamed kinship by way of adoption and neighborliness and equality across the quake zones.

The corporeal muscle of generosity

SET IN THE interstices of the ecological web, “wholeness” harbors not only disgust with flesh, but resentment against an evolving cosmos. In fact, wholeness is more an aesthetic and narcissistic artifice that jams psychic vitality and occludes the diverse arteries of love—generosity, mercy, hospitality, compassion. These arterial flows rather demand that we become inclined to one another “at the level of corporeality.”

Generosity, philosopher Rosalyn Diprose has noted, is not so much about “the expenditure of one’s possessions but the dispossession of oneself, the being-given to others that undercuts any self-contained ego.” Finding the ligatures of this muscle deep in corporeality—under the crown of ego and just where disgust threatens to repel us—begins to explain why and how “soul” might be a concomitant of public health.

A demonstrative example of the corporeal nature of soul might be in order: I met David and Jonathon, two adolescent males, in my first unit of wheelchair training. Both of them—in separate mountain biking accidents—suffered spinal injuries. Born of their shared suffering was a friendship of visceral depth, even as both were also typical young, straight males—not wanting to show too much feeling, covering their own pain in humor and antics. Then came the day we were to practice picking ourselves up from a fall by first intentionally flipping ourselves so as to occasion a spill out of our wheelchairs. Jonathon dared to go first but owing to the chaotic—and not yet habituated—firing of nerves in his still-newbie quadriplegic body, he convulsed as he spilled over. In that moment, David’s compassion for his friend literally pulled him likewise into a gut-coiling spasm that took him slithering out of his own chair and onto the ground.

This zone of interdependent feeling—below will and reason and in an openness that is deeply corporeal and affective—seems to me to be of the soulful nature of how we might faithfully tend the epiphany offered by COVID-19 and so create “a new normal” of just wage, fair access to food and health, hospitable civic space, and equal regard.

Staying with the trouble

PHILOSOPHER OF SCIENCE Donna Haraway does not acknowledge that her conviction in the face of our planetary emergency—and consequently her book’s title, Staying with the Trouble—rehearses the vow of the bodhisattva tradition of compassion toward suffering beings. But as she knows, we will, for the rest of our presence as a species on “Eaarth” (as Bill McKibben renames our familiar yet utterly transfigured planet), live our flesh as enfolded through what we have leaked into the environment, even while we could, with passional discipline, unmake social fault lines. To “stay with the trouble,” as Haraway conceived it, is to make “decisions [that] take place ... in the presence of those who will bear their consequences,” including the broad swath of elemental beings. As she puts it, this choice is “both more serious and more lively” for “we become-with each other or not at all.”

As fleshy beings all, we live in unsecured vulnerability. Of bacteria and viruses in evolutionary time, we have been fearfully and wonderfully made. Amid such cosmological as well as social vulnerability, what makes life sweet is equally as fragile as flesh: the whispers of love and promise. These bespeak no hope that sweeps away histories of flesh. What we can offer each other is but this: the vow to live as one obligated to another. And that requires learning more skillfully to swim against the tide of disgust and to practice the corporeal muscle of generosity so as to shelter each other.

This appears in the May 2021 issue of Sojourners