On Celibacy, Ménière’s Disease, and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans

A reflection by Sarah

Yesterday, a friend sent me an audiology journal article. It was a review of studies on positive experiences of hearing loss, tinnitus, and Ménière’s disease. He thought I would be interested because of the article’s inquiring about the positives of what most people see as negative life experiences, and he was absolutely right. I spent hours nerding out over all the citations. Then, I began thinking about celibacy and some responses I’ve seen to the recent Washington Post article on celibate gay Christians.

If you’ve been involved in conversations about LGBT people and the Church for even a few weeks, you’ve probably heard at least one person suggesting that celibacy is fine for those who experience it in positive ways, but damaging for those who experience it in negative ways. There’s some truth to this. I embrace my celibate vocation joyously and have never felt as though celibacy was being thrust upon me against my will. It’s probably accurate to say that this plays a role in my positive experience of celibacy, and there is probably a strong correlation between negative experiences of celibacy and perceptions of celibacy as “damaging.” But I wonder…what does it mean to have a “positive” experience of celibacy as opposed to a “negative” experience? What counts as positive, and what counts as negative? If celibacy is thrust upon a person against his or her will (which, again, I do not advocate), does that necessarily mean he or she will have no positive experiences of celibacy?

Unlike celibacy, Ménière’s disease is a reality that was thrust upon me. Though by the time of my diagnosis I already had friends in the Deaf community and was interested in learning ASL, I did not choose to experience rapidly progressive hearing loss, constant tinnitus, and unpredictable vertigo. Quitting my doctoral program due to the severity of these symptoms after reaching ABD status and writing three dissertation chapters was not what I had planned or wanted for my life. If someone had asked me in years prior to my diagnosis, “How would you feel if you found out that you were losing your hearing?” I’m sure I would have responded with one word: “Devastated.”

Ménière’s disease is a condition that most people would consider a negative-only life experience, yet in every study referenced in the article I read yesterday, significant numbers of participants were reporting multiple kinds of positive experiences. Some of these I would not consider positive even though other people do (e.g. being undisturbed by the sounds of other people). My own experience of this condition has included many aspects that I consider positive even though others might not. I’ve noticed that my visual experience of the world is changing in some fascinating ways. Before I draw or paint, my mental images of what I’m about to put on paper or canvas are more vibrant now than they have been in the past. My color-grapheme synesthesia is stronger. I’m experiencing my relationship with God, His Mother, and the saints in new and helpful ways. I’m growing in compassion for others with disabilities, and my sense of how God is calling me to love is changing for the better. I’m finding friendship and community with late-deafened adults and people who have grown up culturally Deaf. Each of these items is a kind of positive experience that I wouldn’t have imagined possible in my life before Ménière’s disease. Everything on this list is a reason to rejoice. It’s true that often, I find myself exhausted and frustrated after putting every ounce of energy into making the best out of days when the spinning just doesn’t stop, but acknowledging this does not negate all other aspects of my experience.

In conversations about celibacy, Christianity, and the LGBT community, there is a tendency to see everything in black and white. Some people will not dialogue at all unless you’re interested in debating whether or not gay sex is a sin, or whether or not churches should bless same-sex marriages. Others cannot see celibacy outside of, “It’s fine for people who experience it positively, but not for people who experience it negatively.” In real life, few kinds of human experience are wholly positive or wholly negative. Most are mixed bags — or to use a Harry Potter analogy, boxes of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. There’s plenty of cinnamon and peppermint, but somewhere in the box there’s also vomit and troll bogey. Sometimes I think I’m about to begin chewing on a toffee and it turns out to be earwax instead. This is just as likely to be true whether I’m referencing celibacy, hearing loss, my relationship with Lindsey, or almost any other reality of my life at present. Why pretend that celibacy or any other life experience must be either a chocolate frog or an acid pop? Why does it have to be one or the other?

Insisting that a person’s decision to live celibacy inevitably leads either to joy or despair and that the latter is far more common ignores the lived experiences of almost every celibate person I know. I’m interested in hearing from people who have felt thrust into celibacy in a similar way as I’ve felt thrust into Ménière’s disease: have you experienced anything positive as a result? I’m also interested in learning about other opinions on what kinds of experiences count as “positive” and “negative.” For example, does, “I don’t have to worry about STDs” or “I am at peace because I know I’m being faithful to my Christian tradition” count as a positive experience? Or must a positive experience of celibacy be more along the lines of, “I feel happy and fulfilled most days”? Can we determine objectively what constitutes a positive or negative experience of celibacy? Is it ever appropriate to suggest that another person’s “positive” experience is actually a “negative” experience and that he/she is wrong but may not realize it yet? Rather than sharing my current opinions on these questions, I welcome our readers to share theirs in the comments.

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