I’ve been stewing and thinking about this piece for quite some time. It’s a complicated and very personal issue, so obviously, I do not speak for all PWDs. I am trying to give you an idea of how disability affects faith, because it most emphatically does! It affects not only your own faith, but the faith of people around you.
As an aside, I do not think I will mention what my own faith is, because it’s relatively unimportant in this discussion. If you’re really curious about it, please go ahead and ask. I use ‘higher power’ in this discussion to mean any higher power – god(s), god, goddess(es), spirits, angels, saints, some amorphous higher power, etc. It’s a shorthand, and used because I do not wish to prejudice this discussion in favor of one faith or another. For what it’s worth, I think all of these reactions are completely valid, and do not think one is ‘better’ than the others.
I’ve noticed that it seems like a higher proportion of PWDs are Buddhist than the general populace. I suspect this comes from the emphasis on inner life. Buddhism also teaches that life is suffering, which can be reduced by having this very rich inner life of contemplation and less focus on the world and all its trappings. It stands to reason to me – if you can release some of the desires to do activities or obtain things that you no longer can because of your disability, you will likely have greater peace and happiness!
Now, when we become disabled, there is a huge array of ways we deal with it regarding our faith.
Some of us leave, and never return, because our faith is shattered by this bad thing happening to us when we believe we are good people. In this group, there is often a sense of ‘why me?’ Some leave because a higher power that would do that is no higher power they wish to worship; some because they do not believe that this would have happened to them if a higher power existed. I see this one across every religion. Disability can have very ill affects on any relationship, and when your relationship with a higher power is one of trusting that higher power to keep you sheltered because of your faith in them, it can feel like a betrayal when that higher power does not appear to affect you. I feel like most people in this group, who walk away from their faith, do so because of anger or grief.
A variant on this theme is someone who leaves their faith for another. In light of a disability or other difficulty in life, people sometimes come to the conclusion that their prior beliefs cannot be right because the change in their life does not seem to fit within that belief system. I would not say that this is losing or abandoning faith, but merely changing perspective. Sometimes, people go through many faiths before settling on a new one. Some people spend a while not holding to any faith and then go to a new faith instead of their old one.
Some of us, myself included, don’t actually walk away from the faith per se…but are so emotionally affected by our disability that we have to take a break. In general, this is an approach that regards a disability as something that happened for no particular reason. For myself, the emotion that made me stop practicing was anger – I was too angry with everyone and everything to feel comfortable making any kind of contact with my higher power. I did not want to reach out to my higher power with a fist I could not unclench. After nearly two years of being disabled, I am finally approaching a point where I think I might be able to return to my former levels of practicing my faith. I have lived by its tenents this entire time, to be certain, but I have not been a person who practices.
Some of us find meaning in our disability. They see it as something that has happened for a reason – a lesson to themselves or others, a rebuke, a challenge to make them grow. I cannot recall seeing this attitude towards disability from anyone but Christians, though I have seen it in many different denominations of Christians. This type of view tends to make a person practice more frequently and more fervantly than they did before, and often leads to the person talking about this approach a great deal. I cannot tell you how many conversations with people who view their disability this way have included a reference to their disability being for a reason. As I am religiously a pretty private person, this tends to make me a little uncomfortable – this ‘witnessing’ all the time. I think sometimes that people are pushed to react this way, and I wonder sometimes how many of the people I hear fervantly proclaiming that it happened for a reason are really asking ‘why me?’ but cannot say it because they have recieved poor reactions from others when they speak that way. People who speak to a PWD and assure them that things happen for a reason can silence any kind of questioning, because if things happen for a (good) reason, then asking ‘why me?’ is questioning a judgement of the higher power and thus not to be done. Please, please consider this when speaking to someone with a disability. The pat reassurance that all things happen for a reason may comfort some, but for others it shuts down their own attempts to make sense of what has happened to them and silence the person who is actually experiencing the change in their life.
There are people who find that their view and approach to religion does not change. These tend to be people who have a great deal of acceptance towards their disability. There is less ‘why me’ and more ‘things happen’. I do not mean to imply that this is any better an approach than any other! They are simply different. Their outlook on the relationship between higher power and world has not changed significantly. It sometimes seems to me that this may be the path of least internal turmoil towards the higher power.
Relationships change for people when they become disabled. Some change smoothly and effortlessly – my relationship with my boyfriend has made this transition to where he must assist me more without any friction. Some become terrible anger and pain, to the point where they are abandoned, temporarily or permanently. Some suffer fits and starts – my relationship with my mother has been like this, where she accepts the physical side of my disability gracefully but has trouble with the change of perspective that comes with it.
I think that the relationship with a higher power is different only in that the other entity in that relationship doesn’t speak to us as clearly as a person can. It is only how we relate to the higher power that changes, not how it relates to us. In that way, it is both easier and more difficult to navigate. Easier because there are no hurtful comments, resentments, or slights on the part of the higher power; harder because we cannot just sit down with the higher power and hash everything out with the clarity one can with another person.