You are not your illness.
You are not your disability.
It can be hard to remember this, especially when cancer comes calling, or the insurance company sends you a statement regarding your deductible, or the nurse manager calls to “check in,” or when you have to wear a mask or use a walker or get hearing aids for the first time. It is hard to remember when you are asked to fill out if you’ve ever had an STD or if you’ve been asked not to give blood, or if the first question that people ask of you is always about your diabetes or your weight loss or your mood or your steadiness on your feet.
You feel transparent. Or rather you feel like your disability or your limitation have taken center stage and the rest of you, your gifts and graces, have been left back stage, like props no longer deemed worthy of discussion. Your talent in cooking—the flavors and smells you conjure from scratch– takes a backseat to your recent doctor’s visits. Your expertise in finance and your on-point analysis: out the window at work when your colleague asks if you’ve considered taking some extra time off. The joy that you find in music and theatre seems of less interest than your latest PSA count. Your insight as to the latest sports match and victory seems less valuable than your insight as to the best place to go for physical therapy or the recitation of your social security number or how your marriage is faring in the wake of this latest trial. It may seem like your disability has become the only thing folks notice or, in a sad reversal, your needs are ignored, overlooked, or dismissed when you need community most of all.
But you are not your illness.
You are not your disability.
There are times, too, when you wish you didn’t have to ask for accommodation. That people would realize that not everyone has a visible need. And even when the need is clearly visible or clearly necessary, people conveniently “forget” that we are not all made the same, one size or one body or one experience or one particular concern or prognosis fits all. Access isn’t simply a physical thing—whether some institution has made the doors wide enough (though important) or some speaker has made the sound loud enough (though that is important too)—but access is also remembering that no one likes to be excluded from belonging, or from the benefits of community. Access is recognizing that others have unique perspectives to give and that difference is not to be feared. And access is about rights, responsibilities, and being seen.
Ten people with leprosy encounter Jesus. Translations matter. Our scripture says “lepers,” but they were not their disability; they were not their skin disorder; they were not their contagion. There is a difference between a reasonable fear of contagion and a fear of the person.
Ten people with leprosy are walking along the borders of Samaria and Galilee. They greet Jesus but at a distance. Distance is something folks with disability understand. Suffer a tragedy or loss or chronic hardship or hidden limitation and one quickly discovers that disability isn’t the only thing with which one must reckon. The isolation after a change of health or misfortune can be disabling in a different way. People don’t know what to say and so you feel as if you need to make it easier for the one who doesn’t know what to say or how to respond. Some friends want to fix it or make it better or just ignore the pain at hand. You feel a strange combination of invisibility and anger for being seen not for who you are, but what someone thinks you have become, whether accurate or not.
Ten people with leprosy raise their voices to Jesus and he sees them.
Which is to say that he notices them as human beings first, and they are no longer invisible or just part of someone else’s backdrop. They are seen. And because they are seen, Jesus sends them to the priests so that they may be admitted back into community. Jesus sends them to the ones who can proclaim them “well” to others and thereby gives them access to community, to healing, and to worth. He affirms their need, their existence, and their ability to live full lives. He sees them.
And they are healed as they are going on their way. How does this happen? How does ten people with leprosy become ten “made whole”? Where has the leprosy gone?
Where has the cancer gone when the person who loves to run finds someone to help her train in the midst of chemotherapy? Where has the blindness gone when the community installs special sidewalks or braille signage at an appropriate height? Where has the mental illness gone when the community includes in its worship life those who are coping with hidden pain?
One of the ten returns to thank Jesus for the miracle of healing. And this one, this one of the ten, was a Samaritan. The distinction is important because Samaritans were considered “other” or “less than.” They were perceived as the enemy, the ones from the other side of the tracks—as we might say–, the foreigners, and the outsiders. And this Samaritan is really an outcast of outcasts. Not only is he an outsider because of his leprosy, he is an outsider because of where he is from and the faith that he espouses. Jesus not only sees him, Jesus affirms him. And that affirmation, that access to community and to being seen as worthy and valuable instead of a slighted minority, makes him well.
Likely the other nine were eager to get back to their lives and to living after having been isolated for so long. I know I would have. Sometimes you are so in a hurry to get to the next thing after being denied for so long that you forget the ones who helped you along the way. I don’t fault them for not expressing their gratitude. We often expect those who are disabled, those who are in the minority, and those who have been recipients of our kindnesses to be more than grateful for benefits we have taken for granted. We like to lift up those who are appreciative of our small movements towards grace and doing the right thing, whatever we deem that to be. We seldom ask those with particular needs whether our perception of the right thing is really the thing they truly need. We can also give ourselves more credit than we deserve.
So maybe the other nine were eager to be on their way to a new belonging. I don’t know. But Jesus didn’t discriminate as to the one from Samaria versus the ones from Galilee. In our attempts at healing in our current empire, we discriminate more than we admit. Some of the more well-to-do receive greater access to health benefits than those who are from poorer areas or different backgrounds. Borders matter a lot in our current politics while human need matters less. Where you are from, your race, your orientation or gender and whether your particular disability is covered under insurance can make a huge difference as to whether you return praising God or cursing the powers that be for benefits denied.
And yet, even with these realities, Jesus reminds us: you are not your disability.
You are not your illness.
This current diagnosis isn’t the only trajectory possible for your life.
Jesus sees you.
Jesus hears you.
And Jesus has some idea of what you endure on a daily basis.
Knowing that you are more than the isolation you feel, or the pain that you experience, or the fear that others project upon you will help to heal and to save you from narrowing your life to other people’s misperceptions and rigidity.
The wonderful thing about Kodi Lee, (the recent winner of America’s Got Talent and Greta Thunberg, the young climate change activist, is that they have pursued their unique goals not despite their disabilities, but as who they are and because of who they are. Their success does provide hope and a platform for others who may be struggling or who may doubt their own unique gifts. However, for every Kodi Lee and Greta Thunberg, there are many, many others who are eager to shine just as brightly with the affirmation and access, opportunity and belonging that you—in the steps of Jesus—can foster. Whether it is acknowledgement of their truth, or greater understanding of their needs, or greater access to the benefits that a majority of people receive without second thought or expressions of gratitude, or whether simply your awareness that difference is not to be feared—we can help to lessen the isolation that those struggling with disability or illness often experience.
In doing so, like those ten, as we make our way, we may find that we are healed as well.