“A healthy body is not a body that experiences no pain, a healthy body is a body that feels the pain of its weakest part”Paul Brand
I shared this quote over the weekend and it has really made me think. If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Paul Brand, his work focused on Hansen’s Disease (leprosy). He pioneered treatments and surgeries, but one of his greatest discoveries was that leprous patients felt no pain. When I sit at a computer screen for hours on end my eye sends signals to my brain in the form of discomfort, my brain and body interpret these signals and I blink to moisten my eye and relieve the discomfort. in a person who experiences Hansen’s disease the signal is not there, the person does not understand that his or her eye is in need of moisture and so does not blind and the result is damage to the eye. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey have developed these observations and applied them to the Christian Church in the book Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image. I encourage readers to pick up this book and see how Dr. Brand along with Mr. Yancey develop the metaphor of the body for Christian reflection.
But today I want to think about that concept of the weakest part of the body in terms of current events, because if I take Dr. Brand’s words to heart then our society is in an extremely unhealthy situation. Of course, much of my immediate ire results from conversations this week about the COVID vaccine; interacting with people who will tell me the decision to take or not take a vaccine is completely up to the individual. When I pointed out I am a Christian and my motivation is to “love others as I love myself”, a woman responded this is American and America is founded on individual liberty. Sadly, I think she’s right. I say this because I see the same individualistic mentality in other areas of the social order. It was clear to me the women I was conversing with were wrong, they were wrong on the facts and they had an inferior morality, but I cannot argue that these women are simply projecting a normative cultural morality onto this issue. American morality emphasizes individualization and though there are legal precedents overriding such individualism for the sake of public health, such a mentality is not so easily fought.
Last night I watched two cartoon shows with my children, in the first the protagonist placed family members in mortal danger to save money, and in the second best friends ended their relationship because they wanted more money. Someone will invariably response, “these are kids shows!” as if they somehow do not represent an accurate picture of the world around us. We do not simply live in a “me first” culture, we inhabit a “me only” culture. We horde resources as much as possible rather than share with others, for evidence look at instances of rioting during disasters or the way corporations act during a financial crisis like 2008. The antivax community is not abnormal for America, it is American to its core, and that is the problem. So many are hoping that somehow we can lay aside our individuality in the midst of a pandemic when it infects culture to its core. Ask people why they took the vaccine, very few will respond that they did so to protect the community or help the weakest in society. Many took the vaccine to be protected or to end the pandemic. I have heard some (mostly pastors) who have had reservations about the vaccine but took it because of love of others, but these are very rare.
If the body metaphor were applied to America, I have no doubt we would be leprous. Our weakest members are continually crying out in distress and we fail to respond. Health care workers cry out that they are taxed to the limit, physically, emotionally, & spiritually and all I hear is people talking about liberties rather than responding to these weakest with compassion. I hear the poor cry out and America is deaf to their distress. I hear immigrants and minorities cry out in pain and they too are often met with silence. We are the brain not responding to the eye when it needs moisture. Absolutely, I fault politicians who fail to respond to these cries while pandering to their bases, I think these who control much of the system are the biggest problem in the system. But I also see where each of us bears responsibility for maintaining the cult of individualism. Each of us bolsters this mentality when we fail to take on community responsibilities because they cut into our free time. My job allows me the opportunity to talk with a number of community leaders and they all lament the lack of volunteers, no one wants to do the hard work of building a community.
To expand the body metaphor, we each like to be the eye who needs only say, “I’m dry” to be covered over by the lid and moisturized. But, if you are reading this and you live in America you are more likely the lid; chances are you are not the weakest member of society crying out for help. More likely you are in a position to help those around you. It might be that you are helping the overstretched nurse in the hospital by running an errand for her or sending her a present or perhaps by doing everything in your power to stay out of her hospital (like getting a vaccine or wearing a mask). Perhaps your work is to build up a relationship with the school to help that child whose parents are unable or unwilling to see that child succeed. Maybe all you can do is pray for these situations. But the reality is we can and need to do something to build a tighter community that hears the cries of pain coming from our weakest members, and until we begin to do that we will never be a healthy body.