In her book, ‘Illness as Metaphor’, Susan Sontag explains that within many cultures, illness is believed to be the result of something a person has or hasn’t done. Perhaps you’re ill because you ate too much bacon, drank too much wine, did too little or too much exercise, didn’t get enough sleep, put yourself into too many stressful situations, dwelt on a situation too long or even sinned (did something wrong in God’s eyes) etc. etc.
I know my health problems are not my fault, in fact we are pretty sure that it is likely the result of my genes, but sometimes I still wonder if I should have exercised more or eaten healthier or done more meditation even though I know this is unlikely to make any difference at all. When I think about what I could or should have done differently, I feel guilty as if I could have changed the past, I wouldn’t be suffering but nor would I be making life harder for those around me.
My parents suffered when I couldn’t eat and was very weak and when I experience high levels of pain because there is nothing they can do to help me. They suffer financially because I cannot work enough hours to earn enough money to sustain myself so are looking after me at home too. There relationship may even suffer because I take up their time and energy so they have less left for each other. I am almost certain they would not want me to think like that but I feel guilty for what I have taken from my family and those around me who I care most about.
Another avenue that produces shame and guilt is being vulnerable and honest. When I am vulnerable and honest with people, I will tell them when I am in too much pain to continue walking or too tired to stay up and socialise or that I need to have something different on the menu due to dietary requirements or I need to have extra cushions on my bed, a downstairs room in a hotel to reduce energy usage. In real life, it means saying no to baby-sitting because I am too tired or in too much pain to help out despite having done nothing else all day, leaving someone who has done 8 hours work, cleaned and tidied, walked the dogs and already baby-sat yesterday to do it again today. That leaves me feeling very guilty but there is nothing I can do. My body is out of my control.
Shame is the result of societal norms being broken. If the shame came as a result of wearing bright pink clothes to work in an office where everyone else wears suits, the person may be embarrassed but they can wear a suit to work the next day and the shame will slowly disappear. When the shame happens as the result of something beyond our control, the only we can do is hide it the best we can. For me, that looks like not using the wheelchair when out in public, eating foods that my friends eat even if they hurt so as to not appear ‘fussy’ and provoke questions and doing all I can to keep up with those around me and then going up to my room to sleep and take medications or cry until the pain subsides or I fall asleep.
As a Christian, I fear shame every time I open up to someone new about my health issues because society says illness is our fault (see above) and many Christians often say that if you are not ‘healed’ it is because you don’t have enough faith/ don’t pray enough. When I have done all I can and prayed everyday for many years, had prayer evenings dedicated to my healing, this not only leaves me feeling upset and frustrated but shamed because I can’t do anything to change those people’s views of me and my condition.
However, we know that God does not want us to experience guilt and shame. They are not heavenly emotions and do not belong in God’s people. Often, guilt and shame are our own fault in which case, the bible tells us we need to ask for forgiveness but this is different because chronic illness and disability are not our own fault (generally). Even the disciples, who were only out to do good by sharing the good news of Jesus with those around them, experienced shame but instead of letting it overwhelm them, they turned it on it’s head -“rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). It might not seem like it, but we can use the shame we feel for having disabilities or chronic illnesses and use them for good by using them for His name and glory and for the extending of His Kingdom.
It is likely this will not keep the guilt and shame away completely but we can ask God to protect us and block the unfair attacks that are aimed at us. When we pray, He listens, and He will work in our guilt and shame and stop the devil/ accuser from hurting us through his lies. Overall, we must remember that even when we feel guilty because others are making us feel that way, God is not saying that to us. He loves us and cares for us and has not given up on you.