A reflection by Sarah
I’ve been trying to find the right words for this post for nearly two weeks. I’m a bit afraid to write it because I don’t like sounding preachy (which I can be at times) or snarky (which I am most of the time). Most of all I fear coming across as ungrateful even though I’m not. There’s a bit of wisdom from my Christian tradition that says “Lord have mercy” is the best prayer we can pray in any circumstance because prayer is meant to acknowledge our smallness and God’s greatness and express our desire to become fully united to God. If you feel so inclined, I’d appreciate a few repetitions of those words for me as you read this.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been stuffing a lot of difficult emotions. Not surprising. I tend to do that until things burst out on their own in some way that’s self-destructive. I fall into this pattern especially easily when I don’t know how to discuss situations where I’ve felt hurt or shamed because of someone else’s words stated with the best of intentions. Prime example: interacting with my mother who has always believed that my lesbian sexual orientation is a choice, and that I could become straight if I really tried hard enough. As I wrote once before, I respect the sincerity of her convictions and her wanting what she thinks is best for me, and I can still do this while believing with all my heart that she’s dead wrong. I’ve always been grateful when she tells me that she’s praying for me, even though at times I suspect this means she’s praying that someday I’ll stop being attracted to women. As time goes on, it becomes less stressful to take this in, sit with the anger and sadness it brings up, and appreciate my mother’s intentions for what they are. I’ve had time to grow a thicker skin where this is concerned. But that’s not true for similar situations that are newer to me.
Two weeks ago, I found myself awkwardly at the center of attention in a very large group of people as Lindsey shared about some of the difficulties we’ve been experiencing within the past year. My one ear that can still hear speech was full of fluid that day. I can read lips only when I’m standing very close to someone, so I was relying almost exclusively on a friend who volunteered to interpret for me. I watched as Lindsey spoke tearfully about my health problems and the issues that led us to leave our last parish. Soon, Lindsey was motioning for me to come forward. A bit bewildered, I came and everyone began to pray for us before I had any sense of what was happening. The mix of emotions I experienced within the minute or so that followed cannot be expressed in words. I was grateful to be surrounded by kind and loving people from all forms of Christianity who are willing to pray for us when some in our own tradition will not. I was anxious because I had no idea what was being prayed since the prayer was not interpreted. But the most overwhelming feeling came on slowly and hit hard within the few hours after: angst like none I’ve ever experienced at any point after adolescence. Angst that began to surface as soon as I realized that most of the crowd was probably praying for something very different than what Lindsey and I have been focusing on in our own prayers.
I tried to get some rest that night. All my mental focus on reading lips during the day contributed to a significant vertigo episode, and I just wanted to forget about what had happened and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. But the next day when I could hear somewhat more, I found the events of the previous evening difficult to put behind me. Dozens of people — folks who have been shamed and harassed by others intent on praying their gay away — were approaching Lindsey and me, offering to pray my deafness away. Within less than 24 hours, I was told of three different herbs that supposedly cure deafness, two different scriptural passages that might cast out the “spirit of deafness,” and God only knows how many bits of advice for passing as a hearing person. Eventually, I stopped engaging in conversation when the issue arose. Every time someone stopped me to ask if I’m the person who is losing hearing, I came up with some reason to end the discussion quickly. It didn’t take long for me to identify that I had experienced exactly the same feelings several years ago — the first time my mother told me I could choose to be straight if I wanted, and that she would be praying for me.
I think perhaps I’ve made reference to the similarities between coming out as a lesbian and becoming a late-deafened adult. I can’t remember the post. Maybe I’m just imagining that I’ve written about it before. Regardless, the resemblance between my life now and my life at 17 is uncanny. It’s bizarre to be feeling teenage angst during my 30s. It’s maddening to encounter well-meaning people almost daily who tell me that I should be working harder to avoid ever telling anyone about my hearing loss, that I should be medicalizing my hearing loss just as much as my vertigo, that they are praying I don’t become more dependent on sign language, that God will certainly restore my hearing in the Eschaton, that because I have the ability to talk I should be using my voice all the time, or that it would be irresponsible for me to decide against getting cochlear implants eventually. I’m tired of seeing people begin to cry when I tell them that I have a deaf ear. I’m tired of reading course evaluation comments from students who are skeptical of my intelligence and listening to people comparing hearing loss to suicide. All this is even harder to manage when the messages come from people in the Church. It’s no wonder so many serious Christians who have been deaf from birth are inclined to look for churches that welcome Deaf culture even if their personal beliefs are at odds with the theologies taught at those churches. It’s also no wonder that so many Deaf people are completely uninterested in going to church at all. I’ve not been dealing with this for nearly as long as some people, and already I find myself wanting to yell (or sign) obscenities.
None of us understand fully the needs of other people. Only God does. I wonder how often in my own prayer life, I’m asking God for something on behalf of another person that would actually be hurtful and disrespectful to that person. So often we see every struggle in a person’s life as a problem that can be lifted away with divine intervention. If something is hard or seems hard to us from an outsider’s perspective, we want to do everything we can to make things easier. But sometimes, what one person sees as benevolence another sees as condescension. Sometimes without even realizing it, we assume that one state of being is superior to another just because one is our experience and the other is a different experience that seems like it would be unpleasant or limiting. Sometimes when we pray with the intention that a person’s life would improve, we ask for the wrong things — things that might, should they happen, bring about reduction in that person’s quality of life. We need to stop praying away the gay, the deaf, the blind, the poor…the aspects of life that make people who they are. We also need to stop assuming that we necessarily know what is best for everyone who is different from us. And I need to stop writing because I’m starting to get preachy. But if there is anything I’ve learned from my own experiences thus far, it’s that “How can I pray for you?” is a question that cannot be asked enough. And when I’m entirely clueless about what another person needs from God at a given time, it’s best to stick with “Lord have mercy.”
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