When we are born our bodies are immediately assessed. We get the gender test roughly translated as ‘is it a boy or a girl’ and the ‘fingers and toes’ test – physically ‘normal’. The normalising gaze hits our poor helpless bodies immediately. Bits and pieces aside we are all born unable to walk or talk – it’s part of being a baby so it is culturally accepted. But we are then expected to progress to walking. Developmentally seen as important, a milestone celebrated often with over exaggerated parental enthusiasm. Bi-pedal functioning is given high status for humans which is kind of ironic given ‘we’ in the developed world spend most of our modern lives seated these days.
We generally expect our bodies functioning to change gradually over time. We make jokes about it – prepare for it, even advertise products to help you cope with the inevitable loss of bladder functioning. But not all change is slow, in fact it can happen in the blink of an eye.
The shock and disbelief of seeing someone you know or love or have a connection with lying in a hospital bed, in a coma with the possibility that they may not wake up or use their body as they did before reaches into all dimensions of our being. Sadness, and overwhelming emotions are part of that which says something about the significance of our embodied lives that we usually take for granted.
When a young person suddenly loses limb functioning– particularly the abilty to walk – the need for a return to common functioning reflects the strong cultural production of the body. The shock wave of this sudden change packs more punch if that young person expresses themselves physically by mastering complex and skilled movement. More often than not young men engaged in sport or other high risk activities. Masculinity and physical mastery of movement are almost inseparable.
We build our identity around many things including our capabilities, so a sudden and significant alteration means adjusting to new found vulnerability, like going back to that infantile stage of life. When common functioning is lost there tends to be a lessening of value of that person in general because, in our world our bodies afford us access to a ‘meaning-full’ life. This meaning is of course culturally constructed but is centred around relationships – which involve, communication, intimacy and sexuality in particular, having children, a job and being economically productive.
I’m not a rehabiliation specialist of the physical sort but I do work with people who are confronted by emotional spiritual and psychological identity fragmentation when change happens. The urge to ‘get back to normal’ tends to dominate conversations. Those who ‘push through the pain’ are seen as courageous with determination. Positive mental attitudes or refusing to accept limitation is preferred over quiet reconciliation with could be a more permanent state of being. Celebration is reserved for those who recover fully or at least keep fighting. Brad Smeele is one of our most recent example of a young man in the pinnacle of a career that involves high level risk who eventually crashed becoming a quadriplegic. The media intend following his rehab progress and I suspect this horror voyeurism is about satisfying our own fears of loss of function – to be back to normal – physically capable once more.
To allow for vulnerability and dependence in a world that fiercely values independence and self sufficiency, is not about giving up hope but holding reasonable hope that acts to contain sometimes wild and exaggerated expectations for recovery. Michael Schumacher famous formula 1 driver suffered a ski accident and is ‘recovering’. However the reports of what ‘recovery’ and progress means are clearly different, again reflecting the tension between reasonable (informed) hope and sensational exaggeration in the name of optimisim causing some confusion and angst for fans and family.
Grief occurs when there is an experience of loss. It is a natural and healthy reaction to change. Sudden change disorients us and we reach for things to locate who and what we are – that everything will be OK. My sense is we need more conversations and explorations around the kinds of change events in life that can disrupt our sense of who we are so that WHEN – it happens our ability to read and recognise the terrain of distress will enable us to gently pick our way through the kinds of anchors of our identity that are present but require re-sighting with possibly a new unique outlook.
As Lillian Smith put it ‘our fear of the losses can keep us from changing…what is it…exactly we are afraid to lose’? and possibly, in the blink of an eye.