Healing into Wholeness
Much of our language around healing is not about wholeness, but about ableness. Shifting our frame from the ideals of ableism to a deeper understanding of wholeness can help us heal ourselves. This change in perspective also enables us to bear supportive witness to the wholeness of others, whether they are healing by our definition or not.
Heather Petit is a UU seminarian currently dual enrolled at Starr King School for the Ministry, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. She is a lifelong UU, and a UU preacher's kid. Heather has a background in intercultural communication, and is interested in working in the American corporate workplace to help companies serve their values within the company and in their communities. She lives in Newark, Delaware, with her husband and four children.
Reading: An excerpt of the poem “The Wholeness” by Gajanan Mishra
Of the entire cosmos
Is within me
And I am aware of it.
See me, I am
See me, I am
Not a separate part
Of truth and love.
Time for All Ages: Everything She Touches Changes (spoken paraphrased, by Heather Petit)
There is a scientific theory called the Gaia theory, that says that everything on the earth, from the rocks to the birds to the people to the insects to the things that we have not even discovered yet in the deep ocean are all part of one living being – Gaia – the earth. Gaia is the name of the Goddess of the Earth in Greek mythology.
So what do we know about the earth? The earth is big. It has a lot of water. It has a lot of animals.
Another thing we know about the earth is that it changes all the time. Little changes – like the weather today is different from yesterday, yesterday was windy, and today isn’t. And there have been big changes. A billion years ago, Gaia looked different than she does now. In the ages of dinosaurs, did it look just like it does now? Great big plants and many different animals, and no people yet.
But was it still the earth?
There is a song about a goddess that says ‘everything she touches, changes.’ Another way we could say this is that everything on the earth is always changing.
Does that sound right? Some things might change very slowly, but other things might change quickly. What is something you know of that changes quickly? And what changes very slowly?
How about you? How big do you think you were when you were born? So you’ve grown. Do you look just like you did when you were born? Probably not. And if you have scraped your knee or had a cut, did it stay that way forever or did it heal?
And through all those changes, are you still you?
A lot of things can change about us, and we are still ourselves. A part of that song that starts with everything touched by the goddess changing goes:
Everything lost is found again
in a new form, in a new way
We might be different, but we’re still us. Each of us, in all the ways we change, are still our whole, special, beloved selves.
Sermon - "Healing into Wholeness"
Whenever I look at an idea, I start by looking at the words I use. For the themes we are exploring, this seems particularly relevant.
Just as labels can affect how we view other people by over-simplifying, the language we use around ability, health, and wellbeing can do the same. The words we use become frames through which we comprehend the world.
I’m sure you know that the words we choose matter. This isn’t news, even if it’s all over the news right now.
Words have power.
So okay, the words we choose matter. They’re tools we use to understand the world and each other. And beyond the exact meaning of the words, the history and context of our words matter, too.
Healing has a simple meaning – making things healthy again. And yet, healing and even what we mean by healthy has so many histories. Both personal and cultural.
In our culture, healing conceptually takes an upward trajectory, getting better, getting healthier – it’s always up. And there’s also a paired downward opposite. If we’re not getting better, we’re either stuck going nowhere, or we’re getting worse. Healing is working, or it’s failing to work. There’s a good direction, and a bad direction. Seems pretty obvious.
Healing, then, is a trajectory towards healthy. This is the name for how we get to healthy.
All that seems fine.
Our language is sticky, so the bad direction tags along with some meanings we may not expect, some moral judgments can come along for the ride. Healthy and hearty. Healthy and strong. Healthy and normal. The ideas of robustness and vigor come with the idea of health, so these become the destinations along the trajectory of healing. The idea of normal comes with healthy, too.
Healing is a return to strength, a return to normalcy, a return to being able. Which in one sense is fine, but it starts to make me uncomfortable.
I’m not normal. Okay, yeah, who is? But health-wise, if normal is horse, and unusual is zebra, I’m an okapi. For those who don’t know, that’s the weird looking creature at the zoo that looks half zebra, half horse but is really more closely related to a giraffe. Normal-wise, I’m neuro-diverse – that is, my brain isn’t ‘normal’, and I also have not one but two super-rare genetic conditions. One puts me far from hearty and strong, and the other puts me pretty far from ‘healthy’, too.
And we haven’t even touched on emotional or mental or spiritual wellbeing yet! Or any of the many other ways we can be hurt and can heal.
When we toss in the spiritual side, healing becomes even more tangled up with our culture. American religious culture has a very value-driven idea of health and wellbeing. Our very sin-oriented cultural ancestors were quite certain that healing was God’s work, and God was perfectly willing to let people suffer for their bad behavior. So healing could be withheld. If you were bad. One’s robustness was an indication of one’s character and spiritual purity. People who were suffering were probably suffering for a reason. They left an out for pity cases – sometimes those who suffer greatly were totally good, just being tested by God, instead.
Healing carries this complicated, conflicted value set with it.
This can’t help but come out.
How many of us when we are struggling with a health concern or an emotional wound have been told that we were experiencing this so we could learn something from it? Or that someone expected that we were such a fighter, so strong, that we would surely beat whatever it was. Our character would be the determining factor in our health. This is fine, if you experience yourself as a fighter. And. Disheartening if you don’t have that kind of strength today.
These are moral judgments. And the concepts behind them are the same ones that create ableism. One experience of being in the world is good, the other is bad.
Healing into health at one level is a completely reasonable concept. If we’re just talking about the words themselves, an upward trajectory toward robustness is fine by me.
And yet, since we’re never talking with only the words, but also with all the meta-messages we send that we maybe didn’t intend to? Talking about healing as talking about health – and all the concepts that come with that word – is a little uncomfortable for me. As I said, I’m not healthy. No amount of effort, doctor visits, or spiritual purity will fix me. I’m not normal. … Am I still good? Am I still worthy? Am I still enough?
So, where do we go from here?
Ableism is a bias that says that ‘healthy’ ‘normal’ people are good, and people with health differences are less important, less worthy, less valuable. They, the other people (not us) have less inherent worth and dignity. Ableism is tangled up with our Puritan roots, with the idea that God just values healthy people more. Or that we’re healthy because we aren’t secretly evil.
Even as a person with disabilities, and who is raising children with disabilities, I am nowhere near perfect in dealing with my own internalized and externalized ableism. As a child, I was never okay with racial slurs, and since I was raised UU, even in the 70’s using gendered words as an insult was not okay with me. No insults using LGBT folk as bad, either. But I still called people crazy as a disparagement. I still called things lame if I thought they were pathetic. I still called people blind, idiots, nut-cases. Until a couple of years ago, I never thought twice about that.
One of my friends, Rev. Theresa Ines Soto, is a disabled, queer, Latina UU minister. Their words have made me attend more carefully to how I conceptualize healing, and how much I filter for the ableism in my concepts of what is good, and what isn’t. Theresa reminds us that ableism is the ism that makes all the others possible. It is the grease on the gears of supremacies of all sorts. These are the last slurs to get dropped, and people with disabilities are the first and most likely to die under oppression. When we look at who is dying, among LGBT folk, and in black communities, a large proportion are people with disabilities. Far greater than the number of people with disabilities in those communities would account for. These are the people with differences, illnesses, injuries both visible and more subtle. And their lives are valued less, because they are not healthy. Not ‘normal’. Not what we are or who we aspire to be.
Instead of healthy, I am learning to think in terms of wholeness. I can look at my body in terms of healthy, and find it is never there. Even if I exclude the genetics, healthy is a fragile condition. I can be healthy one day and the next day not. It can always be taken away from me by an event or an act of God.
But what I am, is whole.
When we heal our most grievous wounds, the ones in our hearts and spirits, we discover that we are whole. We could still be struggling with a persistent case of Lyme disease, and never feel healthy. But when we heal our hearts, we know ourselves as whole, no matter what else is going on.
We could have a neurological difference, one that makes our minds not really function on the same track as expected… and still be whole.
I am not able for a lot of things. I am not able to pick up heavy objects, I am not able to maintain the eye contact expected in our culture for the proper duration, but I am whole.
My friend with Cerebral Palsy is whole. My friend who died of cancer last year died whole. Autistic people are whole. Mentally ill people are whole. People who look different are whole.
Even when we are healing our hearts, and feel like we have a horrible wound, something missing from the center of our being, we’re still whole – the healing is about knowing it not about fixing it. We were born whole, and we remain whole. We are all of us, always, all the time, in every circumstance, whole.
This is the heart of our first principle, to me.
One thing I have been doing, in order to move myself along in addressing my own ableism is to shift the frame my language makes. There is the obvious attending to what words I use when I want to say that someone is not making sense. Or that they are harmful to people around them. Or that they are creating chaos in their own life. The slurs that still try to roll out ahead of my thoughts are no more than lazy proxies for the more painful truths. No, my friend’s husband isn’t crazy. He’s abusive. No, that person isn’t lame, they are having a hard time fitting in. These are harder truths, and they ask something of me when I acknowledge them with my words. They require me to feel, really feel, rather than hold tender and uncomfortable feelings at bay with easy insults.
Another thing we can do, is simply choose to see people as whole. Hurting, perhaps. Wounded or angry or abused or afraid, and whole. Different or neurologically diverse or dealing with mental illness, and whole.
And finally, we can look at ourselves, and consider our own wholeness. Even at my most broken, I had all the parts of me in my hands. I can be broken and still be complete, still be all the me there is, still be valuable, worthy, cherished by whatever we consider Divine.
We are our complete selves. No matter what our wounds are. No matter what our genetics say. No matter whether we can open a jar of peanut butter by ourselves or if we need assistance. No matter if we struggle with our minds or carry the scars of emotional injuries in our hearts. We are each whole.
Each of us here has our own differences we live with. Our own losses and our own wounds.
Each of us here is on our own trajectory of health, today, right now, we are going up or down or staying just where we are a little longer. We are constantly changing, and yet we are still exactly who we are.
Each of us here is on our own path through recognizing our internalized ableism, our entrained value judgments and spiritual weighting of the worth of people who are not physically or mentally perfect - robust - healthy.
And still, no matter where we are in our work, where we are in our lives, and where we are with our wellbeing, each of us is complete, as we are.
May we know this, and continue to know this is true. May we continue to feel our own inherent value, or to heal into understanding that we have always been whole.