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    rocky shoreline on an overcast day

    Falling in the Right Direction

    A debilitating accident reacquainted me with my own weakness and limitation, and the power of a disabled God.

    By Philip Kurian

    February 18, 2022
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    • Donna Weimer

      Beautifully written. Last paragraph brought tears.

    • Chris Bousquet

      Thank you for this piece, which I fortunately came upon via Mockingbird's Week in Review. About a year and a half ago I was in a traumatic cycling accident. Thirty something miles into long training ride, I had a syncope episode while riding downhill. I literally woke up on the (thankfully) side of the rode and spent a week in the ICU with a broken hip, clavicle, and multiple ribs. The entire experience was pretty profound. I've both lost a lot (no more cycling to name one thing), but also gained a lot, in ways very similar to what you describe.

    • Diana

      Yes.

    • Diane McElwain

      Excellent writing. I almost feel the pain as you fell. Thank you for these words.

    They say every man needs protection
    They say every man must fall
    So I swear I see my reflection
    Somewhere inside these walls

    —Nina Simone sings Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Released” (1969)

    In the summer of 2019, while hiking on an island off the coast of New Hampshire, I lost my footing and plummeted more than six feet, headfirst into a watery abyss of jagged rocks. My body, sensing imminent death or paralysis, reoriented itself mid-flight and chose to sacrifice the rugged right shoulder instead of my delicate skull. Technically, in addition to immediate shoulder dislocation and rupturing of my rotator cuff, I suffered “severe trauma to the right axillary nerve.” While true, that’s the physical part of the story, which invariably tells us only so much.

    God certainly sent angels to me that day, in the form of human beings. A nurse, of all people, was the only person within earshot of my fall; she was able to stabilize the injury and contact emergency medical services. After being transported by the Coast Guard to the nearest hospital on the mainland, gritting through pain as an EMT lifted me from boat to ambulance, I was placed under anesthesia so that my shoulder could regain purchase within its socket. Waking in a stupor near midnight, with no way back to the island and being pressured out by emergency room staff, I gingerly rolled my now-stiff frame upright so I could find my way to shelter. A very kind and generous couple, who had seen my plight on the boat and in the emergency room, had left their phone number on my backpack and took me into their home – cleaning my wounds, rebandaging them, and caring for me over several days.

    The road to recovery has been long and incomplete. My right arm doesn’t work like it used to. Tasks I previously took for granted, ones I spent my entire life doing while thinking about other things, have demanded my full attention and strength. Showering, getting dressed, and tying shoelaces have required pauses to rest. Reaching for dishes on the top shelf or taking a hot bowl out of the microwave has become fraught with danger. My left arm has learned to compensate for my right, experiencing aches of its own in shouldering an unfamiliar load. At a routine vision appointment six months after the fall, it was discovered that my retina was nearly detached, probably a lingering result of the jarring impact; that precipitated emergency intervention to save the sight in my left eye. My body in this period seemed a cautionary tale at best; at worst, I looked like a homeless pirate.

    When it became evident that surgery and physical therapy would not completely cure the loss of function in my arm, I was faced with certain uncertainties that demanded faith or quiet resignation: Would I be able to swim again? To do a pull-up? To shoot a basketball or swing a racket? To raise my right hand, so to speak, unassisted by my left? The superfluous privilege of these acts now seems ironic, vestiges of desire in my accustomed and acculturated bodily identity. Still, this doesn’t discount the tremendous demands of caretaking which my wife honorably suffered through, probably questioning “in sickness and in health” at the heights of my orneriness.

    I am not disabled, nor do I think my injury severe enough to warrant that label. But I have certainly become more acquainted with my weakness.

    In Mark 8, after feeding four thousand people with seven loaves and a few small fish, Jesus scolds his disciples, who, even after witnessing such a grand miracle, fail to see its deeper meaning for their lives. Jesus then makes a more explicit example with the blind man in Bethsaida. After spitting on his eyes and laying on hands, Jesus asks him “Do you see anything?” The blind man replies, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus then lays hands on him again, and the blind man is able to see clearly.

    rocky coastline under a stormy sky

    Photograph by Michael Fousert

    What a picture of our “profoundly twofold, confusedly entangled” condition – as Martin Buber describes it in his thoughtful spiritual meditation I and Thou. The physically blind man, a stranger to Jesus, sees, but the sighted disciples in Jesus’ inner circle remain without vision. What distinguishes the two? The blind man here is honest about his suboptimal condition, noting his incremental but fuzzy progress after the first treatment. He does not proclaim, with baseless self-importance, that he sees or knows all. And his honesty is rewarded by Jesus with clearer sightedness, both bodily sight and the “in-sight” of soul and spirit. Conversely, the condition of Jesus’ disciples may be captured by the title of sociologist Osagie K. Obasogie’s book Blinded by Sight.

    As Buber explains in I and Thou, all descriptions of the spiritual life are filled with twoness. The world of It, set in space and time, stands apart from the world of Thou, but from the world of Thou “spirit can penetrate and transform the world of It.”

    Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s mission exemplified this duality of the spiritual life. As “a Christian missionary to Christians,” his goal was to awaken an acculturated, nominal Christendom to the radical vibrancy of Christlike thought. Kierkegaard emphasizes in his 1847 Works of Love the metaphorical twofoldness of spiritual language that points to a reality beyond itself:

    All human language about the spiritual, yes, even the divine language of Holy Scriptures, is essentially transferred or metaphorical language. This is quite in order or corresponds to the order of things and of existence, since … the spiritual man and the sensuous-psychic man say the same thing in a sense, and yet there remains an infinite difference between what they say, since the latter does not suspect the secret of transferred language, even though he uses the same words.

    The common, binding element shared by the spiritual person and the “sensuous-psychic” person – the latter with an adamantly empirical yet reductionist mind – is that they both use the gift of language. The first three verses of the Hebrew Bible offer us wisdom: the Creator (Gen. 1:1) as Spirit (1:2) begets Word (1:3). Our creative acts as human beings are conditioned by the invisible spirit within, which manifests as words, as states of order, and as the worlds we inhabit and shape.

    I can do nothing on my own … (John 5:30).

    I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13).

    Weakness and strength; burden and blessing; disability and ability – they are inextricably paired in all of us, and to varying degrees. I know nothing of the trials of the physically blind or lame, except through their testimonies, but nevertheless I would be a liar if I did not confess the river of weakness that shapes my life. These “falls from grace” give meaning to any personal triumphs in the walk of faith.

    Our spirituality teeters precariously at times, between the certainty and doubt with which we meet these statements from scripture. Who among us has not felt incredulous at Jesus’ words, “I can do nothing on my own”? We think to ourselves, caught in illusion: But I support myself; I achieve things; I am worthy of praise. And yet who hasn’t also felt doubts about our capacity to “do all things” that life demands of us? Am I good or capable enough? Am I loved? Does anything I do matter? We rock back and forth, desiring to say “yes, we can” – a cry of the soul, not a political slogan. And imagining, at the same time, all those for whom “can” is a tenuous proposition.

    Perhaps our awareness of the one pole (weakness, burden, disability) in each dichotomy is heightened to the degree that we recognize that the other (strength, blessing, ability) is unmerited, not worthy of intrinsic value, and merely an opportunity to engage the pain, struggle, and uncertainty of the human condition. Nancy Eiesland, the late theologian and author of The Disabled God, comments that Jesus’ resurrected – but still scarred – appearance “embodies the ability to see clearly the complexity and the ‘mixed blessing’ of life and bodies, without living in despair. This revelation is of a God who is for us, one who celebrates joy and experiences pain not separately in time or space, but simultaneously. … To posit a Jesus Christ who needs care and mutuality as essential to human-divine survival debunks the myth of individualism and hierarchical orders in which transcendence means breaking free of encumbrances and needing nobody.” Such a Christ is the archetype for demonstrating manifestly that our spiritual power is not limited by the extent of our debility.

    So it is with the person who dares to commit to follow him. With a starkly countercultural message for the self-promoting vanity of this age, Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses. … For when I am weak, then I am strong.

    This is not the only instance where God has used a thorn in the flesh to humble his servants, “to keep [them] from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations.” Sometime after Francis of Assisi visited Egypt in the thirteenth century, he began to experience a loss of vision that plagued him for the rest of his earthly life. And Martin Luther describes in his diaries the Anfechtungen he often experienced, a debilitating depression with which he had “to fence or duel.”

    Young Luther was traveling home one Easter when the student’s sword he carried – common in those days – badly cut his leg, severing a main artery. The injury disabled him for some time. But it was his deep soul agony, perhaps the inner complement to this external impairment, that enabled Luther to persist against a state-sponsored religious apparatus that masqueraded as purveyor of the mystical body of Christ.

    Richard Niebuhr saw the dangers of what Kierkegaard, Luther, and Francis would all recognize as the church triumphant, a strictly ableist church without suffering where “to be reconciled to God now meant to be reconciled to the established custom of a more or less Christianized society.” Such is the naive optimism of a false religion, says Niebuhr: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” It is an opaque veil intended to bamboozle the believer out of the most authentic witness to a weary world – faith in the trials of suffering that cannot be evaded.

    In the same vein, Buber made the connection between the extent of utilization that comes with mastery of the world of It and the enervation of humankind’s power to enter into I-Thou relations, the power by which individuals can live the life of the spirit. The hallmarks of such utilization and exploitation are replacement of direct with indirect experience, mere knowledge acquisition, and what the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire would call “thingification,” a dehumanizing attempt to transform all relations into commodities.

    The essentiality of relations and their mediating context highlights the distinction between poverty of spirit and poverty in spirit, both of which should be distinguished from material ability or disability. While being poor of spirit suggests a dereliction of duty, a failure of solidarity and of kindness, and an incomplete introspection that cannot see the self in sum total of its awesome brilliance and gory contradiction, being poor in spirit conveys the essence of the Sermon on the Mount. Precisely because of one’s commonality and identification with suffering humanity, one also endures intense feelings of lack and inadequacy to overcome the trials of human relationships without the help of God.

    Weakness and strength; burden and blessing; disability and ability – they are inextricably paired in all of us, and to varying degrees.

    Weakness and inability are thus essential to a living, generative spirituality. But a theology of virtuous suffering can be dangerous if it is weaponized to silence the disadvantaged or materially disabled, who may internalize their third-class status in society and resign themselves to acquiescence as their only viable option in response to the social barriers and stigmas of an unjust and hostile world.

    Luther’s physical and psychic debility enabled his resistance to the demonic Thou that had mutated the spiritual message in its human position of ability and privilege. Like Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Fly (1986), the church, devoid of its scriptural moorings, infected by greed, became a monstrous It of Goliathan proportions. And, unfortunately, an associative and linguistic link was wrought between the deceptive, state-enabled, poor-of-spirit church and the transcendent, often materially disabled, poor-in-spirit church – the true body of Christ, without a cause and yet singular in eternal purpose, supporting no worldly side and yet emerging from all sides. This untenable link has conflated into weapons of mass confusion between It and Thou for generations of common people and spiritual seekers, bearers of the excruciating humiliation shouldered by the Golgotha-bound Christ.

    The “prosperity gospel” of American excess is the antithesis of this experience, and the apotheosis of our present deceptions. It is a bait-and-switch of Thou with It, because it contains the most enticing lure: that the way of Christ can be attained and mastered without debility, without suffering, and without the persistent necessity of weakness and doubt. The “prosperity” promised by its acolytes remains a pseudospirituality unhinged from solid and sober foundations. It is an empty gospel, without a personalized cross to bear, and one that would ring hollow to generations of slaves, refugees, and oppressed minorities, as well as those with disabilities. It could only be promulgated by those skilled in the art of telling lies to themselves.

    When I think back to my moment in the abyss, sometimes I envision Jesus in the wilderness, atop the temple in Jerusalem, and I wonder what his real temptation was. Did the master already see the extent of what he had to suffer? Was his inner wrestling more with the fear of bearing future pain and disability, than with doubts about whether angels would arrive before he dashed his foot upon a stone? And I wonder, then, whether the real nerve I damaged in my fall was that snaking, knotty lure of pride and self-sufficiency that seems to run so deep within me. Even after many a humbling life experience, this was yet another spiritual reminder of my profound need for weakness. The temptation to despair, to question the wisdom of my body’s choice to keep me alive in a physically enfeebled state, may be the most jarring indicator of pride’s grip on the soul. What I struggled to see in the first year after my injury, but appreciate more fully now, is the blessing and opportunity that abiding debility gives us in the spiritual life.

    Jesus Christ, the disabled God, stands with the limited, the burdened, and the disinherited, and he resists the attempts of those with worldly power to erase any countervailing narratives. He falls again and again while bearing his cross, and he is assisted by others, including a North African man from Cyrene, during his greatest trial. His resurrected body still bears the marks of state-sanctioned violence, calling us all to be bearers of this image of God – personally, prophetically, and politically – “not in spite of our impairments and contingencies,” Eiesland writes, “but through them.”

    Contributed By

    Philip Kurian is the founding director of the Quantum Biology Laboratory at Howard University. He has received awards from the US-Italy Fulbright Commission, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. He serves as an advisor to the Whole Genome Science Foundation, the UK-based Guy Foundation, and the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. His essays have appeared in Granta and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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