The Catholic Organization for Life and Family has asked me to speak to a seminar it is sponsoring in Ottawa next month. The topic I am to address is "I am more than my handicap." That is true.
My disability is one reality of my life but not the sum of my life. It does not (and must not) define me. I have to be more than my disability or it would have consumed me years ago.
That sounds obvious but I have met people with disabilities and chronic illnesses who allowed their conditions to do just that. This is particularly true in cases where disability or chronic illness is acquired in adulthood.
For example, the sudden catastrophe of spinal cord injury can be the source of deep despair and bitterness for the individual who finds himself facing paraplegia or quadriplegia often in the blink of an eye.
All it takes is a fall or car accident. It is a terrible shock to lose partial or complete use of one's limbs. A severed spinal cord irrevocably and drastically alters how a person lives his life.
Grief is like a river that can block the sufferer from continuing his life journey. It is imperative to cross the river of grief and discover what is on the other shore. After the initial shock passes, it becomes critically important to actively and intentionally rebuild one's life and incorporate the new reality.
The individual must develop a new self-identity that includes his disability or condition and his loved ones must encourage this process and accept the new person and how he perceives himself. But the individual's new reality should not be focused on his disability. This transition phase is uncertain and even dangerous.
Some people refuse to rise above their circumstances and face their new reality. They want their old life back or they want no life. They are unwilling to cross the river of grief and can become suicidal. Unresolved grief in people with disabilities (and their loved ones) can fuel calls for euthanasia and assisted suicide.
This is an important fact for everyone to understand, particularly in the current climate where acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide is growing in North America.
Unresolved grief must be proactively addressed. It must be addressed as an issue that extends well beyond people with disabilities and their families: Their communities must acknowledge that settling unresolved grief is critically important for the sake of the common good. The support of local parishes for those overwhelmed by persistent grief is necessary to help hurting people eventually return to active parish and community life.
The bridge across my river of grief was the cross. Christ was not merely waiting on the other side of the river: He has been with me throughout every leg of my disability journey. He continues to help me redefine and redevelop my life; Christ is helping me understand where, how and why I fit into the world with my new and evolving realities.
Disability journeys often involve developing new dimensions of self-identity that are different from a previous self-identity but no less vital and perhaps even more vital as the individual discovers new aspects of life. Granted, these new dimensions of life can involve pain but pain may be necessary for our spiritual development.
The Church teaches this: "The human body shares in the dignity of 'the image of God': it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 364)
This reality does not change with disability or sickness. The human body will always share in the sacred dignity of bearing God's image, regardless of its brokenness or state. The human soul always remains intact as it waits for new dimensions of experience to be revealed that were previously unknown and unexplored by us or those who love us. An atrophied and unresponsive body is still a temple of the Spirit.
Yes, I am more than my handicap. We are all so much more than whatever handicap hampers us from reaching the potential God intends for us. It is only when we surrender our broken bodies, hearts and lives to the living Christ that we will begin to see new spiritual dimensions blossom within us and in the body of Christ.