"217. 'We're only given as much as the heart can endure,' 'What does not kill you makes you stronger,' 'Our sorrows provide us with the lessons we most need to learn': these are the kinds of phrases that enrage my injured friend. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a spiritual lesson that demands becoming a quadri-paralytic. The tepid 'there must be a reason for it' notion sometimes floated by religious or quasi-religious acquaintances or bystanders, is, to her, another form of violence. She has no time for it. She is too busy asking, in this changed form, what makes a livable life, and how she can live it."
--from Maggie Nelson's Bluets, p.88
I love this.
I finally got my hands on a copy of Maggie Nelson's Bluets, a thin tome of numbered variations on the color blue.
I was recently talking with a good friend who lives with bipolar disorder about this very issue--how hard it is to respond when well-wishing strangers tell us that living with a chronic condition is some sign that we were marked at birth as people "strong enough" to handle them. It is perhaps the weirdest form of flattery. I understand this desire to explain away the bullshittedness of disease, that perhaps when we don't have a solid medical reason, or a clear cause and effect, we need to make up some reason why.
I tell myself these stories regularly--that I'm a bigger, stronger, tougher person because I'm diabetic. But there's a difference between growing stronger as a result of coping with something, well, unwanted, and the belief that those of us "lucky" enough to live with chronic conditions do so because we're the best for the job. That the sheer randomness of disease is best explained in terms of our more flattering qualities, or, better yet, that there's some cockamamie predestination to who gets to deal with what in life.
In Nelson's book, she references this quadri-paralytic friend and her body several times. In 109, they "examine parts of her body together, as if their paralysis had rendered them objects of inquiry independent of us both. But they are still hers. No matter what happens to our bodies in our lifetimes, no matter if they become like 'pebbles in water,' they remain ours; us, theirs." (pg. 42) This, I think, is what so many medical professionals don't understand: that even if our bodies are imperfect, especially if our bodies are imperfect, they are still very much our own. It has little to do with strength, or even luck. It's just a fact that we come to terms with on our own, as we go on figuring out a "livable life"--something that I imagine is much easier with four functional limbs. Nelson explores this fine line between acknowledging tragedy and leaving room for self-definition, which is perhaps one of the reasons Bluets reads like a literary Bible, peppered with philosophical nuance and no-nonsense confession.
Thanks, Maggie, for capturing the livable condition. That's what I want to read about.