John Green’s bestselling young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars is a love story about two teenagers, both with terminal cancer. I was particularly taken with the narrator, Hazel, who has metastatic cancer in her lungs and uses supplemental oxygen. This fictional teenager astutely observes the shame, frustration, and feelings of inadequacy that can come with inhabiting a body that doesn’t work as most bodies do. I have a bone disorder that has caused dozens of fractures and severe arthritis; in young Hazel, I found a co-citizen in the land of compromised bodies. Hazel’s meditations on her impaired body echo my own.
Arriving in Amsterdam to meet a favorite author, Hazel notes, “Amsterdam was a city designed for movement and activity, a city that would rather not travel by car, and so inevitably I felt excluded from it.” Physical surroundings, from a flight of stairs with no handrail to a cityscape designed primarily for pedestrians and bicyclists, can serve as a powerful “Keep Out” sign to those for whom handrails and cars are not mere conveniences, but necessities.
In a key scene, after Hazel climbs steep stairs in the Anne Frank Museum so slowly that she is embarrassed to “hold up the procession,” she kisses her boyfriend, Augustus, to onlookers’ applause. “[F]or a weird moment,” Hazel recalls, “I really liked my body; this cancer-ruined thing I’d spent years dragging around suddenly seemed worth the struggle, worth the chest tubes and the PICC lines and the ceaseless bodily betrayal of the tumors.”
Betrayal. It’s a word that comes up often when we’re talking about bodies that become sick or impaired. We can feel betrayed by a body whose aches and pains and limits keep us from doing all we need or would like to do. Years ago, I preached a sermon at my little coffee-house church in Washington, DC, about feeling betrayed by my crooked, fragile body. Afterward, a friend said she couldn’t accept the idea of bodily betrayal because body, mind, and spirit are so linked. She was a muscle-bound runner who gave birth to her babies at home. Of course she didn’t understand this idea. Her body had never betrayed her. It had always done exactly what she wanted it to.
Now, more than twenty years later, I think she and I were both right. I love that Christianity is an incarnational faith, in which setting the lofty spirit above the mundane and messy body is rightly seen as heresy. God’s love and our response to it are marked in tangible ways on tangible human bodies—bloody thorn marks on Christ’s forehead, the waters of baptism on ours. Christianity understands that bodies have everything to do with who we are; they are not mere inconvenient vessels in which the all-important spirit resides.
This is why I believe Jesus’s healings were real and that, contrary to all those sermons insisting that the main point of Christ’s healings was not physical but spiritual restoration, they were as much about easing bodily suffering as redirecting faith. Jesus knew that a body in pain, a struggling body, can fray the edges of a life. And if left untreated, it can fray it into tatters no matter how solid the spirit.
Jesus healed, and so I believe he knew, as Hazel and I know, that physical pain is not necessarily edifying, despite our clichés about pain being gain and everything happening for a reason. (Such clichés are another sort of heresy.) Pain is not even a neutral presence. It can separate the one in pain from ordinary human experiences and from beloved pastimes and people. Pain, for example, means I do not cook for my family as much and as well I would like to (and used to, before my arthritis worsened). Such limitations can indeed feel like a betrayal of my essential self, the mother who wants to feed her children well.
But I also have learned what Hazel learned when she kissed Augustus in the museum attic—that our bodies can be redeemed, in the sense of their being reclaimed from what keeps them captive. Fully aware for the first time of her body’s singular ability to express and receive love, Hazel suddenly sees her body as “worth the struggle.” The redemption of my body came through bearing, nursing, and nurturing three children. For the first time, my body did exactly what I wanted and needed it to do. Like Hazel, I have learned that redemption of the body—the slow realization that one’s impaired body sometimes makes possible, rather than betrays, one’s essential self—comes through love.