The Grief and Gift of Bodily Limitations

Where We Witness the Underground Mercy of God

This is an edited transcription of Jane Grizzle’s talk from the Orlando Mockingbird Conference, held in January. You can listen to the talk here. Jane also has an essay in the upcoming Sickness & Health issue, available for preorder here.

Sometime talking about bodies is really uncomfortable. I don’t mean this in a seventh grade health class kind of way. At no point will I be discussing puberty or hormones, you can relax. But, I think it is important to recognize that everyone has a different relationship with his or her body and for many of us, it’s a source of shame or frustration or disconnection or pain. My friend Morgan is a counselor and she said without fail, if her clients talk about their bodies, they cry every time. It is a place of great vulnerability.

And I think sometimes we shy away from talking about our bodies because of that. But I also think the Gospel, the good news of God’s grace to us, has something to say about all of it. And I want you to know I am speaking as much to myself today as I am to you. We all have a lot of feelings and thoughts and experiences about our bodies, in our bodies.

One of the primary paradigms we have for thinking about our bodies is “I have a body.” The word “have” is an interesting word to use. It’s not an action word. It’s a relationship word. It tells us where we are in relationship to our body. “Have” is a possessive word. If we believe we have a body, then we believe we are the owners and possessors of that body. We believe we are somehow above the body, in control or management of the body, that our body is somehow separate from us and serves us, its owner. This is what the gnostics and Plato believed — that the spirit and mind are somehow outside of our physical being, that our body is in service to this superior mind.

What language and metaphors do we use when we talk about our bodies? Judging by my local Barnes and Noble, our language is technical. We hack our nutrition. We follow programs. We unplug when we feel stressed. We optimize our cardio. We rewire our appetites. We recharge our souls.

We talk about our biology as though it is a machine that we run — we put certain things in, like good sleep or exercise or certain foods or behaviors, and expect certain outputs — lower weight, increased energy, higher productivity, etc. And that might work for a while, and if it does work, we love to recommend it as though it will work for everyone. It all works until it doesn’t. It might work until you can’t exercise due to an injury or illness. It might work until you turn 40 and suddenly calories in and calories out doesn’t seem to add up quite right. It might work until you discover your genetic material carries a signal for your joints to ache or your eyes to fail.

Bodily limitations are difficult for all of us to accept and live with. We all have them. My daughter came home last month to tell me she had learned that a human can go three days without water and a month without food. Or something like that. Apparently this is important for every third grader to know. We all have to sleep. We all have to eat. I know people in my own family who are really frustrated that there are only 24 hours in a day. And that’s just the basics.

Illness and injury require us to slow down, to take a different path, to rest. In some ways, these limitations are a spotlight on our priorities. And when we are forced to slow down and take a look at our lives, what we see may not be pretty. Limits are another word for interruptions or dead ends. When I think about times in my life when I have hit one of these limits, I dislike them for one of three reasons: they are humbling, they are isolating, and they are disorienting.

Firstly, I am often humbled and sometimes humiliated by my limitations. To address the elephant in the room, some of you may have seen me wearing this giant white mouth guard either yesterday or this morning. It’s funny. I was so worried about what to wear to this conference and then it didn’t even matter because I look like I have a giant wad of gum in my mouth the whole time. I have to eat with it in. I never thought I’d be sick of smoothies but here we are — talk about humbling. Anyway, here’s the story: about two months ago, the disc in my jaw slid out of the joint and caused a cascade of physical problems; chief among them a jaw that did not open very much, meaning I had to eat soft foods that were easy to chew and didn’t require much strength. It also meant that the muscles in my face tightened up to protect the jaw joint, leading to all manner of headaches and pain.

It was a small injury, but a good illustration. I found myself distracted by the pain, discouraged by the lack of mobility, and grumpy because I could not eat what I wanted to or focus on what I needed to do. I hated having to ask people to make sure there was soft food on the menu. I missed deadlines and was grumpy with my kids. I expected much more of myself but was brought low by a tiny disc in my jaw. All my aspirations of being an engaged mom, a prolific writer, and an efficient homemaker were undone by this pain.

Accepting our limitations requires a level of humility that not many of us have. Bear with me. I’m about to talk about sports. I read a great article about the World Cup two months ago. It was comparing Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, two of the greatest players of our time. I want you to know I have no dog in this fight. I’m an Mbappé and France fan so please know I am an unbiased observer.

Ronaldo, playing for Portugal (for those of you who might be living under a rock) wanted to play like he did when he first burst onto the world football stage in his early 20s. He could not accept that his body is actually 39. He could not adapt to his aging body. Messi, on the other hand, played differently as an older player (again, older is relative). He’s 35. But because he could accept that he is slower and not as energetic as he used to be, he played better and ultimately won the World Cup for Argentina. This is not to say that if we just accept the aging process we will win the World Cup. But fighting against humility is a surefire way to hurt yourself.

When we are sick or hurt, our normal routine is interrupted. We have to lie down and rest all day. We might have to change our exercise routine or sleep patterns. We may miss work or deadlines. I get frustrated with my body when it keeps me from doing all that I believe I should be doing.

And these injuries or illnesses are not just inconvenient for us. When my husband’s back seizes up while we are running to catch a flight (hypothetically of course) I end up with all the luggage and the children to manage. When I felt dizzy and sick last month, he had to drive the whole seven hours to New York.

As Will Ryan wrote in a brilliant essay a few weeks ago:

For as much as I talk about God’s grace being a gift, or that we are saved not by our actions or works but by Jesus’ work on the Cross, or that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, the rubber met the road when I couldn’t do anything. ‘Our value isn’t found in what we’ve done or accomplished but in what God has done for us’ sounds nice until you can no longer do a single thing but watch third-tier college football bowl games (or in my case, British murder mysteries) and wallow.

Will continues:

As much as I’ve professed to be a Theologian of the Cross, all I need is a little bit of failure, of plans going awry, of personal uselessness to expose the fact that I’m still a Theologian of Glory. I still want to contribute at least a “little” something. I still think I have to take care of others (including myself). I still don’t want to let go of the image of myself as in charge, in control, in power. I still don’t want to see myself as a bruised reed or a faint wick.

Part of this is because we still believe that we are what we do and what we produce. Even though I want to believe I am loved regardless of my productivity, that theology of glory that Will writes about is always just under the surface. And nothing brings my self-glorification to a standstill quite like pain.

Bodily limitations also feel isolating. We are wired for relationship, but illness and injury make that more difficult — especially if you feel like you are the only one struggling with such limitations. When I was nineteen, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a chronic mental illness, that causes me to obsessively ruminate on intrusive thoughts, namely harming others or being evil, and perform compulsions, which for me involve special prayers and mantras and other internal dialogues or tricks.

Like other sufferers of chronic illness, I struggled with depression at the lack of a resolution or quick fix. While my friends were off at parties and pulling all-nighters to get the best grades, I diligently put in the hours with counselors and therapies. I tried to avoid situations that might trigger a panic attack — like not getting enough sleep or taking on too many deadlines. I can manage it, but I still have obsessions and compulsions to this day. When you are nineteen, you really want to find your people, you want to be loved and included. But for me, because my illness was not visible, people did not understand it. It’s hard to explain what life with a brain disease is like.

In her book The Invisible Kingdom, Meghan O’Rourke writes about her struggle with autoimmune disease:

American culture and American medicine within it largely strives to downplay the fact that we still know so little about illness … in the place of uncertainty, Americans have catchphrases: Just Do It. What Doesn’t Kill you Makes you Stronger … the shadowland I lived in forced against my will … was an uncomfortable and unsatisfying place, especially since I lived in a culture that promotes the importance of triumph over adversity — a culture that insists on recovery.

Having a chronic illness, whether mental or physical, means you don’t fit in the box of sick nor recovered. There isn’t a comforting narrative with a clean resolution. We occupy some sort of in between land of management and it’s lonely.

I think we can all agree that illness and injury disorient us, especially because they highlight our lack of control. I’ll be the first to admit that if I was in charge, I would never be sick or have a disorder or anything that can hinder me. So much of our lives are built around the assumption of health and wellness.

This brings me back to this metaphor of body as machine. Look, I believe in the machine model. If I put in discipline and good foods and healthy exercise, I should maintain my health. But, when the metaphor fails, when I realize I am not in total control of my body and its health and ease, when dis-ease arrives, I have no one to blame but myself. And therefore, in addition to the pain and discomfort I feel, I also feel shame that I cannot make myself better. If only I try a little harder, or cut out a certain food group, or start a new exercise regimen or think more positively, then maybe these physical limitations can be conquered.

Another major way we try to control our attitudes or reactions is the way we try to find a purpose to our pain. We tell ourselves stories about how or why people get sick. It’s a way to assert our agency in all of this suffering. Dr. Kate Bowler, associate professor of the history of Christian theology at Duke, was diagnosed with stage four cancer at age 34. In her book, No Cure for Being Human, she writes about control like this:

Control is a drug and we are all hooked, whether or not we believe the prosperity gospel’s assurance that we can master our future with our words and attitudes. I can barely admit to myself that I have no choice but surrender, but neither can those around me.” She goes on to describe her friends who send kale and quinoa recipes, and then says, “Buried in all their concern is the unspoken question: do I have any control?”

I experienced this when I was first diagnosed with depression and OCD. The first question I was asked when I told someone I was suicidal was “Do you have any unconfessed sin in your life?” People wrote me notes reminding me that the joy of the Lord was my strength. If I just read my Bible more or stopped listening to pagan music or reading non-edifying books, my spirits would be lifted. Twenty years ago, psychiatric illnesses and disorders were not commonly talked about so it makes sense that people wanted to look for something or someone to blame. And Christians are no different — we just have more slogans.

So what does the Gospel say about bodily limitations? How does Jesus feel about our broken or damaged bodies? I admit I did not realize how many physical healings Jesus did until I started to count the stories in the Gospels. It’s a lot. But as we look at these healings, a few things stand out.

First, Jesus knows a thing or two about humility. We just celebrated Advent and Christmas, the Incarnation of Christ. As Auden writes in my favorite Advent poem, “How could the Eternal do a temporal act, The Infinite become a finite fact?” How can Jesus, who knows no limits, become man, a limited, finite creature?

We worship a God who made his entire rescue plan for all of humanity dependent on having a human body. And Jesus did not just come to Earth as a human but through the most limited human of all, a newborn baby.

When you live in Charlottesville and go to Christ Church, sometimes, you are lucky enough to hear David Zahl preach a children’s sermon. Right before Christmas, David told the kids this fact: that God became man and not just man but a tiny baby. He then asked how the kids felt about being a baby and the kid next to him said, “Mixed bag.” Fair enough. But he’s right, none of us would choose to return to being as small and helpless as a baby.

Jesus became man not by thinking like a human or having the reason of a person or the mind of a person. He becomes man by inhabiting a body. There is something key to our humanity that is wrapped up in our bodies. And I think much of that is shown in limitation.

We know the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus needed sleep. He felt pain. He bled. He also only had 24 hours in a day. My limitations remind me of the incredible sacrifice he made leaving his limitless seat at the right hand of God to come to Earth and know what it was like to be human.

This means we can bring all of our humanity and humiliation to him. Sometimes I think that God doesn’t have time or energy for things like my brain disorder or my pain or my disappointment in my physical body. Nothing could be further from the truth. His incarnation allows him the utmost empathy for all of our limitations.

What we want when we are hurting is for someone to be with us and validate our pain. O’Rourke quotes a 1989 op-ed by the then mayor of Princeton who had been diagnosed with cancer, who says, “If I die, I don’t want to feel like a failure … it’s scary. I want the dignity of that reality.” We want someone to empathize. Because of Jesus’s incarnation and crucifixion, we know we have been given that dignity.

And he can have this empathy, he can embrace us in all of our shame and sadness, our failure to control, and our mistaken ideas of importance, in the death of his body on the cross.

The central component of our service each Sunday, at least in my church at home, is a body, broken, for you. We celebrate a body that reached its ultimate limit, and died. Every Sunday, my priest snaps the wafer in half, an audible and visible reminder that our salvation is only through Jesus’ bodily death.

While we like to think we can improve and manage our bodies, the stories of Jesus’s healings in the Bible show us something different. Jesus mostly heals people who bring absolutely nothing to the table. He heals not the most famous or powerful, he heals lepers, outcasts, those who are considered unclean, the blind, the lame, servants’ children, paralytics, those who cannot offer payment or anything in return. Our desire for influence and convenience, which is ultimately a desire to achieve and accomplish, is not required for a relationship with God. In many ways, our desire to do it ourselves, to fight through the pain, to fix ourselves so we can get back to work, does us a disservice.

In his book, Being Human, Rowan Williams writes that if we believe we are in charge of our selves and our bodies:

[We] drift towards a steady expectation that the best relationship you can be in to the world is control. The best place to be is a place where you can never be surprised. We want to control what’s strange and we want to control what doesn’t fall under our immediate power. We’re uneasy with limits that we can’t get beyond because limits, of whatever kind, remind us that there are some things that are just going to be strange and difficult wherever we are and however hard we work at them.

But he goes on to explain that acknowledging our limits exposes something very true about us: “we depend on what is not ours, what is not us, our will, our hope, our achievements … Christians are adopted into a dependent relationship to that which Jesus calls, Abba, Father.”

For about a month last Spring, my youngest daughter, Margot, told me the same thing every night before she fell asleep. The same thing, every night. In her little raspy voice, her nose scrunched up between those squishy cheeks, she would look at me with those big blue eyes and say, “Mommy, I hate being the littlest.”

Margot is a one woman force of nature. In her mind, there is nothing she cannot do. There is no one who could help her accomplish anything, because as she has told us from infancy, she can do it herself. Limitations are Margot’s foil. She will run the world; we just have to get her to adulthood. Margot is the third and the baby of the family. Don’t let her hear this — she hates being the littlest. She is sweet and cuddly until told she cannot do something.

Margot is not that different from me, or you, or most humans. We, like Margot, hate being dependent. But ultimately we are totally dependent on the cross. Physical limitations are part of that reality.

Second, Jesus cares about our loneliness and invites us into the community of his body. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul writes, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” In our prayer book, we pray, “you have graciously accepted us as living members of the body of your Son, Jesus Christ.”

We see this welcome in Jesus’s healing of the hemorrhaging woman found in Mark 5. For twelve years, the woman suffered. She was poor and destitute because of her desperate search for a cure. She would have been isolated and alone, kept from a full participation in her community because she was considered unclean.

This may seem ancient and old fashioned to you. We wouldn’t keep a woman home for the duration of her period or because of bleeding now. We don’t have the same laws. But, if we replace Levitical law with the new law of health, wellness, thinness, and beauty, we have plenty of exclusionary practices. Think about how we treat people in larger bodies or people with physical disabilities.

But here we see that Jesus does not ignore the woman or her touch. He turns to the crowd, even though he is busy and on his way to heal a dead girl. He looks at her and calls her Daughter. Jesus heals not only her physical limitation but her shame. He restores her dignity and her place in the community. Where do we feel shame and unacceptable because of our bodies? What places are we kept out of, either by ourselves or others, because of our limited bodies?

Another way I have found this desire for community met is through what my friend Andy Gullahorn describes as “the club that no one wants to be in ‘cause tears are the price you have to pay.” The more I grew comfortable telling people about the pain and suffering of my disorder, the less I tried to hide my panic attacks and despair, the more I heard the whispers of “me too.” As David Zahl writes in his book Low Anthropology, we are more connected in our shared limitations than in our victories. We find deep friendships among those who can understand our suffering. It’s no one’s top choice for how to find community, but everyone will be a part of this club someday. I would not go so far as to say I’m glad I have OCD, but my disorder, for all of its pain and embarrassing aspects, is my way of participating in the suffering of this world.

And lastly, how does the Gospel console us in our lack of control? First, we don’t have to control our narrative. We don’t have to make our stories make sense or clean them up with a good lesson we’ve learned. In John 9, when the disciples ask “Who sinned that this man was born blind?” Jesus answers, it was not that this man sinned or his parents but that the works of God might be displayed in Him. God is the one who works all things together. It’s all his story and we can surrender our stories to the author of life.

I hesitate to say this next part because sometimes it seems really trite and dismissive of our pain and suffering. But I want to point out one more time how Jesus deals with a body, specifically a dead body. In John 12, we read that his friend Lazarus has died. And after three days, Jesus arrives at his tomb and asks them to roll away the stone. I love Martha here who is most concerned about the smell. I feel that deeply. The verses recount that Lazarus is raised from the dead but still wrapped in his death cloths. He is still limited by his humanity.

But when we look at the resurrection of Christ in John 20, Jesus is not still wrapped in his death cloths. The linen cloths are folded, left lying in the tomb.

We are like Lazarus, who Jesus resurrected and called forth from the tomb but who was still wrapped in his burial clothes. We are still limited in our physical being and we are still finite. But, we celebrate that one man has overcome those limitations, folded up those burial clothes and walked out of a grave. We are still wrapped up but the day will come when we will be unwrapped and let loose. We know our limits are themselves, limited. In Romans 6, Paul writes:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

As we say each Sunday, we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.

One last thought before we go: in Frederick Buechner’s last book, he discovers that the novels of Graham Greene had “a subterranean presence of grace.” Buechner then draws a connection to his own work, “In the telling of my variation of the human story, I discovered cracks in the ground of my life through which I was able to glimpse the subterranean, life-giving grace of God.”

We do not look at the ground when we are winning, when we are striving or climbing or crushing it. We look at the ground when the Charlie Brown music plays, when we have messed up or been disappointed or are just sad. But if we don’t look down, we miss these cracks in the ground of our life, and we miss these glimpses of the subterranean, life-giving grace of God. Perhaps my limitations, our limitations, are those cracks, where we witness the underground mercy of God.

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2 responses to “The Grief and Gift of Bodily Limitations”

  1. Jim Munroe says:

    Hey Jane,

    I’m now 76, so I KNOW that every word of your piece is true. Thank you for this gift!

    Yrs. in a slew of unconfessed sins, Jim Munroe

  2. Mike Ferraguti says:

    Hi Jane. I’m in full agreement with Jim’s comment. I am 67 and, over the years, have committed to wellness, yet my pacemaker and hip replacement remind me of what you shared about control. Thank you. You are gifted.

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