During a Friday morning panel at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, writer Jessica Mesman Griffith said something that would later come to trouble me.
“Disability,” she said, “is not a gift.”
Griffith was speaking for a session titled “How Chronic Conditions Challenge and Enrich the Writing Life,” and I should clarify, first, that the statement itself is not the issue. Echoing a point that her fellow panelist Daniel Bowman, Jr., an autistic writer and academic, had raised earlier, Griffith, who lives with severe depression, offered this line as a warning against rationalizing disability. In particular, she was taking aim at the ways in which religious communities attempt to route disability through narratives of spiritual formation—to frame disability as a sort of blessing because, after all, all things must work together for the good of those who love God.
In this case, Griffith was pushing back against those who would encourage her to view her depression as a divine gift, precisely because contextualizing depression as a gift tends to deemphasize the very real suffering that accompanies it.
But if Griffith and, with her, Bowman insisted that disability is not a gift, it is odd, really—and maybe even a little obscene—how readily and uncritically I embraced this panel on disability in exactly those terms.
To be sure, this tension did not register for me until well after the session had ended. Indeed, I left that panel with a page and a half of notes in my journal, and with a heart full to bursting. Here, I felt, was something important and necessary and beautiful. Against a culture that trumpets blustery strength over all else, Bowman described his uneasiness around other people but left his audience to contemplate for itself the miracle of his holding forth before a crowd of sixty or seventy. Against independence, Griffith offered scenes of her dependence—moments where friends called her up to urge her out of bed and into the shower, or even stopped by to feed her a bit of fried egg when she’d lost the will to eat. And against the integrity and sufficiency of the self, both speakers gestured time and again to the sort of community that will meet you at the brink of the void and remind you that you are not alone.
Lovely sentiments indeed. Yet even if we return to that previous paragraph, the ideas that interested me most about the panel—the ones that inspired me to tell Jes afterward, “This session alone made the whole Festival worth it”—never engaged with suffering in a meaningful way. I acknowledged the fact of suffering, sure, in order to make sense of ideas like courage, dependence, and community, but I lost sight of the pain. I embraced the aspects of Griffith’s and Bowman’s stories which edified me, and downplayed the hurt that lay beneath them.
I appreciated their disabilities even as I missed the point completely.
This failure finally came to my attention a day or so later when, wanting to write this blog post about what had excited me at the disabilities panel, I stumbled upon that earlier quote from Griffith, scribbled down among all my other notes from that session. What had changed exactly, I can’t say. Maybe I’d heard or read or seen something to put me in the mind of my own intellectual blind spots. Or maybe it was just the effects of time, space, and critical distance. In any case, rereading that quote, I realized with a sort of dull shock how thoroughly my own interests had hijacked one of Griffith’s primary concerns. If disability is not a gift, I had nonetheless been happy to make it one—and then to go a step further and address that whole, unpleasantly tidy package to myself. Enamored with ideas that were not in themselves problematic, I had nonetheless rendered them problematic through my comparative disinterest toward the real and human hurt that lay beneath them.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.