The UU Experience

Sometimes it seems like everything that leaves my mouth is about disability, more than half of it critical. Sunday, with my maiden voyage into San Diego’s First Unitarian Universalist Church, I again felt obsessed.

In the beginning, I kept the words from passing my lips as we walked down stairs that led to a ramp. I suspect there is some form of wheelchair access, but all I could think was, “Great, stairs to ramp. How… aware.”

Next, my friend read me the service topic “Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help Us Grow.” I was intrigued, but “broken”? A mental roll of my eyes.

Further pamphlet exploration revealed we would sing “Amazing Grace”. This finally ended my silence. I explained the line “Was blind but now I see” is inherently ablist whereas “Was bound but now I’m free” avoids that yet maintains the overall message.

The service began with “Rise if you are able.” Knowing my energy limitations, my friend offered to stay seated with me, but I said standing was fine even though the whole thing was ablist.

The sermon peaked my curiosity. How would he go about addressing something I know on a bone-deep level? He opened with the line, “Life is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be opened.” His main point was that fixating on and identifying with the traumas of our past keep us mired in the pain unable to experience what life has to offer. While wounds need tending and the pain cannot be pushed into a corner, there can be a place where you recognize the suffering, learn from it, and then live life.

There was so much emphasis on not identifying with one’s pain that I began to question myself. Do I cling to disability as some sort of wound and therefore miss out on life? Is my tendency to be disability obsessed a symptom of not letting go? Have I made an avocation out of poking at my wounds?

Lunch proved an excellent place to lay out these doubts. Then, I explained that I see my disabilities as positives that shape my life and inform who I am as a person. I asked if I was deluding myself with pretty rationalizations.

While I was unable to differentiate between clinging to past difficulties versus the way I live, my friends found it easy. I guess it’s not about where you invest your time or what occupies your mind. Instead, it is about the spirit in which you go forth and live. Do you pick up your difficulties and shoulder them as a burden? Are you pulling the misery out for public display? Those would be a kind of holding on that keeps the wound fresh. According to my friends, I mention my disability in a matter-of-fact way when relevant, do not have a rain cloud of suffering that lurks over me, and contrary to my perceptions, I do not talk about disability incessantly.

Embarrassed though I am to admit it, I equated disability with a negative assuming that when the minister mentioned physical difficulties he meant someone like me. Hello? He can mean whatever he wants. I do not have to swallow the assumption of disability as trauma. While he may have given me a nibble, I ate the entire cookie. Whole. And enjoyed it.

Language was mentioned in our lunchtime discussion, specifically the use of “my” as opposed to “the.” There is a line of thinking that says placing my before a word like depression makes it central to your own self-identity granting it undue influence so that you are less likely to recognize or bask in other emotional states. Consider these two sentences. My depression sucks. The depression I experience sucks. While they convey the same concept, the latter offers a degree of distance. I can see the merit in maintaining perspective and balance through word choice.

My point of view is slightly different. Is it words or is it attitude? I can talk about my PTSD without ever once thinking it is a significant defining force in my life, or even particularly relevant most of the time. I’m not so much claiming it as referring to it as I would my eyes or my legs. Never have I alleged, “The legs on my body are long,” but I have said, “My legs are long.” Perhaps when you perceive something as trauma, language keeping it distinct from yourself is necessary. When the topic in question is a fact, then more personal language is less problematic.

A poem by Wislava Szymborska was read during service conveying the idea that taking away one aspect of a person, like their amazement with life, would transform them into another human being altogether. Because my disabilities come with me wherever I go, necessarily impact my actions, and effect how others interact with me, they are an unavoidable fact woven through my life. Taking them away would make me unrecognizable as myself. We talk about “my race,” my gender, and “my religion” making these facts part of our identity. Why can’t disability be a similar fact that enriches my life and grants my character complexity?

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

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