My Brain AVM: Disability and Prayers

This week I’ve received a lovely gift: a prayer shawl from the church I attended when I was a child. It got me thinking about disability and prayers.

Content Note: Religion, “I’ll Pray for You”, Ableism, Accessibility, Politics, Social Attitudes toward Disability, Christianity, Mental Health, Parent Death

Close-up on a woman's hands and wrists, wearing a bracelet, holding an older man's hand (wearing a wrist watch.) Speech bubble from the left of the picture says, "I'll pray for you." Speech bubble from the right says, "...Sorry?" Keyword: disability and prayers

Image Description: Close-up on a woman’s hands and wrists, wearing a bracelet, holding an older man’s hand (wearing a wrist watch.) Speech bubble from the left of the picture says, “I’ll pray for you.” Speech bubble from the right says, “…Sorry?”

The shawls are a ministry of my childhood church. A group knits shawls for those in the congregation that need healing, the shawls are blessed and prayed over, and given away. My father received one several years ago when he was in the hospital a few years back. but the ministry hadn’t yet started when I was in the hospital after surgery for my brain AVM and stroke recovery. A dear friend asked last week if I’d ever gotten one, and I said, “No,” and one showed up at my door with this note:

This shawl was knitted by {name omitted} and blessed with prayers for your healing ~ Body, Mind and Spirit

***

The appearance of this gift was timely, because in a Facebook group to which I belong, made up mainly of disability advocates but also of people just generally interested in disability issues, disability and prayers also came up. a thread got a bit derailed the other night when a presumably well-meaning individual offered to pray for us all.

“No prayers, please,” responded one person.

Group member Belinda Downes, who educates people about facial differences,  asked the group moderator if she could explain why the offer would be problematic to many people in the group, and then went on to do so. I quote Belinda here, with her kind permission:

“Thanks for the offer to pray. I’m a Christian too…so may I respectfully explain why offering to pray ‘for us’ is not helpful? If this is not appropriate…please let me know.

1) I understand as a Christian that we are taught to pray at all times about all things, and to have compassion for others. It’s not so much the prayer that is the problem but the ‘compassion’.

2) Speaking for myself, when strangers who don’t know me offer to pray for my scarred face, I know they are praying for the wrong thing. The people offering to pray for me try to imagine what it what be like to be me, and their guess is always a very sad story about loss and loneliness, but personally I’m very happy and have many great long friendships.

3) Because of point two, when people offer to pray for me, I don’t hear kindness, I hear inappropriate judgement. I hear that people think my life is sad and wrong just because of the way I look. And because of that I have the same reaction that {name omitted} has.

4) My advice would be to pray for what you know about, not what you think you know. And God will lead you to really know that He wants you to know about. God Bless.”

I don’t feel like I can comment specifically on everything that Belinda has said, because I’m not a Christian anymore. I’m a happy agnostic –  I figure that there’s something out there bigger than me, and (most days) I don’t feel any real need to pin it down beyond that, for me or for anyone else. I’m happy to let people define it for themselves, as long as they’re not hurting others in the process.

But I do have thoughts on disability and prayers. Let’s talk a little bit about that, and then I’ll tell you about what in Belinda’s post I *can* comment on.

Disability and Prayers: Some Boring Background About Losing My Religion

I was Christian when I was growing up. I was a devout Christian all through my teen years, in fact. My family was Anglican, but my faith had more evangelical leanings – I’d prayed the salvation prayer, and I believed it, even if as a result my faith life mostly vacillated between feeling like I wasn’t a good enough Christian or scared of what would happen if I wasn’t a good enough Christian.

I noticed in my last year of high school that sometimes I didn’t feel like I could “buy into” what my faith was telling me anymore. I simply found it hard to believe that people around me who were doing amazing things to help other people were going to hell just because they weren’t Christian. I wondered why God would judge my gay friends so harshly, and expect me to as well. I didn’t know that I was taking my first little steps away from Christianity.

Sometimes, when I talk about to Christians now, they say, “Did you think about it this way, though? Like – ” and I stop them right there, because I didn’t decide to leave Christianity on a whim. It was a journey. There was a lot of discussion with a lot of people (Christians and non-Christians, of all ages and in all stages of their faith), a lot of crying, a lot of anger expressed that I didn’t even know that I had in me, and a lot of thinking about ideas that I didn’t even understand at the time. My mother said, “Try not to think about it too much.” I wanted to say to her, “How can I not think about it?” In some moments I was very sad, in others I was terrified, in others I was exhilarated…because in leaving one world, a new one was opening up to me, and it was full of possibilities.

Getting through all of that, to a place where I can comfortably, with peace, say, “I’m not a Christian anymore, but if you are, great. Tell me about it!” took about six years, and I did alongside  defining events of my adult life to date.

Losing my grip on my mental health, when I thought that struggle was over.

Losing my mother, when I thought I’d have her for decades longer.

Losing my ability to move my body to move my body the way I wanted, a possibility that I’d never considered. My brain AVM and stroke changed all that.

Losing the life that I’d planned for myself, fighting to gain any bit of it back that I could, with every bit of will that I could muster, and then learning to let it go and build a new life.

So my convictions on my spirituality have been tried and tested, and I’m quite happy and at peace with where I am (and hope the same is true for you, because it’s a nice feeling.)

Disability and Prayers: My Position

I’m afraid that I’m going to sound contradictory. But…

Despite the fact that I’m not a Christian anymore and that I haven’t been to my childhood church more than five times in the last twenty years, I love the prayer shawl that I received this week. I love the idea of something warm to wrap around me, imbued with the loving intentions and focus of others who know me and my family, even if they don’t see me around church anymore. I live in a small town; these people still see me.  Most of them saw me grow up, so they know that there were rough times long before the brain AVM and stroke, and they see that I’ve built a life for myself as a disabled person since the stroke.

I know that lots of people in my community were praying for me when I was in surgery, and afterward, when we weren’t sure what would happen, and as I was recovering, and I’ll always be grateful. And I still welcome the prayers for healing of mind, body and spirit from the people who made my shawl  because I know that I can use this loving focus of intention. After all, there are times when, for a variety of reasons, totally unrelated to my disability, my body, mind and spirit do feel wounded and raw and in need of healing.

I still miss my mother, twenty years after her death.

I’ve often feel helpless and sad for friends and family that are facing far too much grief and uncertainty.

My body isn’t as quick to recover when it’s injured. Pain in my knee and foot set my back significantly this summer.

I wonder what’s ahead for me and if I’m making the right choices for my life.

It’s nice to know that people are thinking of me and that they care, and I will think of that when I wear my prayer shawl on cold nights.

However, in general I feel the same was as Belinda about disability and prayers. When strangers or people who don’t know me well say they’ll pray for me, I feel like there’s an assumption that my weak leg and a weak arm must make my life difficult and unhappy. There are some things about my life that I’d change, but I manage quite well with my disabilities and I don’t give them a whole lot of thought – but, as I’ve written about before, I’m lucky enough to have landed in circumstances that mitigate the effects of constant, debilitating systemic ableism.

I can’t stop you from praying that my physical disabilities be healed, but it’s not what I need. Or even want, really.

Disability and Prayers: If You Want to Pray…

If I could have anything…I’d want a serious commitment from government at all levels (and the funding and resources to back it) that *all* Canadians have what they need to live safe and healthy lives in their community of choice, where they can contribute their talents and feel like their presence is valued and appreciated.

As far as that concerns disabled people, the federal government  is taking some steps with their efforts to create disability legislation similar to the US Americans with Disabilities Act.

But lawyer and  disability activist David Lepofsky declared back in 2015 that Ontario was unlikely to reach its goal of total accessibility by 2025 – bad news, because an accessible Ontario is good for everyone, not just disabled Ontarians.

I’d really like disability-friendly governments.

I need…

I need good snow removal on the sidewalks in town and on steps and ramps so that I don’t fall and hurt myself. I don’t need electric doors to work – I can manage – but, damn it, it’s nice, because I’ve got one arm/hand to work with and sometimes I’m carrying stuff in my hand and have bags on my arm and my cane hooked over my elbow…and other disabled people really do need them. I need people to take me seriously when I say, “This is an access issue.”

I need open minds and open hearts and people to keep talking and not making assumptions about me and my disabled friends – assumptions about what we can and can’t do, about what *you* can and can’t do (and about what you should and shouldn’t do), about what’s legal and illegal. We need people to talk *to* us, not around us or about us – especially when the talk is about things that will impact our lives.

My life’s practically an open book anyway since my brain AVM and stroke, but if I don’t want to answer, I’ll just say so. I’d rather you ask. Just keep it respectful. Respect and dignity. We all deserve that.

Disability and Prayers: Bottom Line

There’s a bit of a list of things I’d love you to pray for, if you want to pray for me:  Friendly governments, accessible spaces, open hearts and minds, respect and dignity. But if you’re still not sure – ask, don’t assume. Even on the days when I look like I’m miserable (and I know that I have them), it’s probably got very little to do with my weak side.

This one rambled a bit. Sorry. Thanks for reading.

Visit Belinda Downes’ Facebook Page – Coffee with Belinda Downes

 

 

 

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