This column is a response to two letters I received recently: The first came from a lady whom I do not know. Among other things, she writes: “I appreciate your column, especially its title, In Exile. You see, Father, I suffer from emotional and mental illness and, in a society like ours, that puts me outside of life. “I always feel like I am in exile. Everyone keeps their distance from me, and they seem to actually blame me for being ill, as if I could make myself well just by wishing it.” Then, last week, I received a letter from a friend who has just been asked to leave religious life because she, too, struggles emotionally. She comments: “I am becoming more realistic about the attitudes that exist both inside of religious community and in the world outside, namely, that any person who has required any kind of psychiatric care is considered forever unstable, unproductive and unsuitable for a life of normal relationships and service.”
Both of of these letter, however gentle their language, contain harsh prophetic messages. Their words are the words of Christ who warns us that health and strength are gifts given from beyond and that when we become complacent, smug and self-sufficient about them, we risk missing the kingdom. The truth is that we, the healthy and strong, are too smug and complacent, and that we are too unfeeling and too judgemental toward those who struggle. In the end, we are too calloused. We are too full of ourselves, our health and strengths are blinding us to what is gift. We are self-preoccupied, adolescent and narcissistic. In that, there is no place for compassion. Our respect is only for those who, like ourselves, are strong, healthy and successful. But that excludes the sick, the emotionally and mentally handicapped, the aging, the dying, the poor, the unborn and unattractive.
Not only do we lack compassion and understanding toward these people, worse still, we blame them for their poverties, as if, as the lady comments, they could get strong and well simply by their own efforts. Moreover, we act as if our own strengths and health are the products of our efforts. Consciously and unconsciously, we have the attitude: “It’s their own fault! Anyone who is sick is sick because somehow they want to be sick or because they are not taking care of themselves properly. Anyone can help themselves!” This insensitivity is, in the end, an anomaly — for we are compassionate by nature. Compassion is an irrepressible instinct inside of us. Thus, it is not surprising that certain things (for example, Steve Fonyo’s Journey for Lives) draw such an enormous outburst of compassionate sentiment. Our underused instinct is taking its revenge. Such things as Fonyo’s run are very good, but for too many of us they can also be an opportunity to vent our moral spleens in such a way that we can then, without guilt, be insensitive and judgemental toward the sick and unattractive with whom we really deal.
There is compassion for an attractive personality with cancer, but a judgemental attitude toward someone we live with who struggles with emotional cancer. Compassion for helpless seal pups, but callousness toward the unwanted unborn within our own wombs. Four years ago, I was handed a mixed grace. I got sick. The illness could not have caught me at a better time. I was on a high – healthy, strong, successful enough, never lacking in friends, full of myself. During the months that I was struggling to regain some lost physical and emotional health, I was given the opportunity to see things from the other side. From the perspective of vulnerability and weakness, my own smugness and complacency was ever so evident. How quickly I judged others. How quickly I disdain weakness. How quickly I assume that others’ problems are their own fault.
How utterly unprepared I am to die. How unchildlike I have become. How smug and devoid of compassion I am I doubt that, despite my fault, I am atypical here. I suspect that I am, on this score, more of a microcosm of than an exception in our culture. So that leaves the question: How can we have become so unfeeling, so smug, so adolescent, so narcissistic, so full of ourselves to have lost our childlike-ness? Prophecy. We badly need it. So I share with you these two letters. They point out that only persons serving a pagan god, one absolutely antithetical to the God of Jesus, could so adolescentize the dictum: “God blesses those whom he loves!” to make it mean: “God loves the strong and attractive!” Thank God for the prophetic challenge of those who struggle. Perhaps they can help us reverse things before death.