I live with chronic pain and chronic illness. I’ve spent half my life, from ages 14 to 30, collecting permanent diagnoses: a crooked spine, a dysfunctional esophagus, rebellious reproductive organs.
These conditions have been frustrating, painful, disruptive. They’ve required hospital procedures and daily home therapies. But I never felt disabled until my late 20s, when chronic fatigue syndrome set in. My symptoms wax and wane; I have only a finite amount of energy. Capitalism has no patience for that. I’ve realized that Christianity doesn’t either.
Religion has always filled a large portion of my time, my thoughts and my heart, but lately a life of faith is one more mountain over which to drag my protesting body. I know, on an intellectual level, that a life of spiritual contemplation and praise is a worthy one. But in my heart, I have never been able to separate faith from action.
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I was 11 when I first felt a spiritual call. A deep, troubling, motivating restlessness haunted me until I threw myself into activism to ease a suffering world. Two decades later, nothing about the world suggests that it’s a good time for any of us to rest. Except that now I have to, or I will crash disastrously. And that leaves me deeply ashamed.
After all, in spite of my problems I have plenty of privilege. I’m white, cisgender, middle class. My disabilities are invisible, so I don’t face discrimination for them. My faith tells me I need to be using my privileges to lift others up. And I do when I can. But I am so tired. And when I’m not, I’m afraid of how tired I’ll be after my next exertion.
If I try to reason this out logically, the dilemma becomes absurd — as if there’s a line drawn through the spectrum of suffering, with those who can serve on one side and those who deserve to be served on the other. But that’s ridiculous. Would I condemn someone else for doing only what their body allows? Of course not.
Yet this ableism is buried at the centre of our religion. The Protestant work ethic that helped make a monster of capitalism lurks within us. After all, no one ever explicitly taught me that my worth as a Christian was bound to my ability to work. But somehow that’s what I learned. I feel a responsibility to the world, and that’s not a bad thing. Still, I can’t simply work my way to righteousness.
This would be easier to untangle if I had a modern doctrine of suffering to embrace. I’ve rejected all the old ones: man deserves to suffer because he is sinful; woman deserves to suffer because she is not man; suffering in this life is good because you will be rewarded in the next.
There is another narrative I could turn to, of course. It’s the bleeding woman who was healed by the strength of her faith. It’s a hundred Chicken Soup for the Soul stories of belief becoming miracle. I’ve come to hate this narrative. It’s judgmental, suggesting that everyone who is ill simply lacks the faith to cure themselves.
Maybe there’s a gap in our teachings that leaves those who aren’t able-bodied behind. I’m not ashamed of what my body is; the shame comes from outside, from the inability to meet expectations. Pain is an old companion, and the fatigue might be bearable — if only there was less work to do.
This article first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2021 issue with the title “A life of chronic pain.”
Erin Alladin is a freelance writer, poet and editor in McKellar, Ont.
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