Nancy Sherman is university distinguished professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. The author of Stoic Warriors (Oxford, 2005), she is currently working with patients at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. A few nights ago she spoke at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs on the stoical attitudes of the U.S. military, how they help steel soldiers for battle and hinder them in returning to civilian life. The hindrance comes especially when veterans are faced with serious injury or impairment.
I can’t imagine what it is to be a wounded or maimed war veteran, but these days I am more in awe of the courage of the disabled than ever before. Since early October I have been dealing with a bad back. During a stop to visit my 92-year-old mother at the start of a short vacation in the fall, I was afflicted one night with spasms in my lower back and right thigh. An orthopedist diagnosed the problem as two herniated disks. While I was only intermittently aware of pain during those first weeks, others said they could tell I was in pain by my look and bearing. Myself, I was more troubled by cramping in my legs.
Other things told me how distressed I was. I lost my appetite and several pounds I needed to shed. Most of all, I could not concentrate. It was more than a month before I could type a memo, though it was all nouns and no verbs. Editors complained that when I returned to holding editorial meetings, they ran out of control. Most of all, I could not pray. One always thinks we will pray in distress. The opposite was true. Pain’s distraction extended to my prayer as well.
With the new year I was able to take up writing this biweekly column again. Editorial meetings returned to their normal pace. I continue in physical therapy, but I have already begun to reach my personal performance goals, walking in Central Park and climbing and descending steps, nearly normally. And in a torrent of short aspirations, prayer returned too. The experience has left me with greater respect for the body’s ties to the spirit and heightened my admiration for those who cope without complaint with chronic pain and disability.
Over the past few months I have discovered that the largest club in the country is the bad back club. Most of its members are anonymous. They don’t talk about their pain, their impairment or their daily regimen of stretching and exercise. In Nancy Sherman’s terms, they are stoical. Another group, however, impresses me even more, those who, despite their pain or disability, cheerfully and generously give to the rest of us. I remember my great aunt, Aly Augustine. For many years, she suffered chronic pain, but she kept up three large plots of prize-winning gardens. The beauty of the gardens was matched by Aly’s good deeds to neighbors and the needy.
If there ever was someone who made lemonade from bitter lemons, it is Brother Rick Curry of our community. Ebullient and outgoing, Rick was born with a stump in place of a right arm. A popular cookbook author, Rick is the founder of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped (www.ntwh.org). He helps support the program with Brother Curry’s Breads and Miraculous Dog Biscuits—now taking orders for St. Patrick’s Day and Easter. This summer, in conjunction with the U.S.O., the workshop will run a writing program at its school in Maine for disabled veterans of the Iraq War. In the fall, Rick hopes to produce a theater piece drawn from the vets’ stories.
I have lived long enough now to understand, contrary to the Stoics, that adversity is not just what we make of it. One’s conscious attitudes have a role to play, but elements of temperament, as well as character, affect how we respond. My mother and brother, for example, have high thresholds for pain. I do not. No matter our temperament, however, grace can also make a difference in how we cope with difficulty.
I think of Jean de Brébeuf and Noël Chabanel, two North American Jesuit martyrs. The two men could not have been more different. Brébeuf, a rugged peasant, was admired by his captors for his bravery and physical stamina. Chabanel, a French aristocrat, seems to have been a neurotic, repulsed by Native American life, too delicate, it would seem, for a martyr’s death. Temperamentally, they were very different, but both were saints. Grace can open our hearts when, humanly speaking, there is every excuse to close them down.There is reason to honor those who bear their injuries stoically. But in those who, like Aunt Aly and Brother Rick, do so cheerfully, contributing positively to our common life, we are doubly blessed.