From Honoring the Body by Christine Valters-Paintner,
“Chronic illness asks you to navigate between worlds, the vertical land of the well, or “temporarily able-bodied” as those in the disability community say, and the horizontal world where most hours are spent in bed. This forced convalescence offers a new perspective on the world of rushing and doing. Each flare of my illness [rheumatoid arthritis] became another initiation into the resistance of capitalist expectations of relentless productivity, which demanded I value my life in terms of output.
It has been 30 years since that initial diagnosis. The medications to treat my illness have greatly improved and I count it as a profound grace that I have not been ravaged by it the way my mother was.
The true grace over time has been deepened intimacy with my body, the long hours spent listening to her call me like a lover, asking me to live as a witness to another way of being, one that values slowness, spaciousness, humility, vulnerability. One that knows Sabbath as a stance of opposition to the forces that train us to deplete ourselves. My body’s vulnerability has informed everything I teach and write about contemplative practice. I believe that a slow, intentional life is a radical act of witness to another way of being. I have learned to honor limits and find beauty in that space of surrender and yielding to another way.
My story is not a one-way hero’s journey. I have not overcome or done battle; I don’t want to be anybody’s inspiration. Stories that give the impression that one can achieve victory over the body’s vulnerabilities do a great disservice to the collective imagination by pushing away the discomfort of grief. I want my story to reveal that tenderness and surrender instead of fortitude and domination are signs of strength. I want my story to say that yielding to my body’s needs rather than forcing myself onward is a sign of wisdom.
In the monastic tradition, memento mori – remembering that you will one day die – is considered an essential daily practice to help us to remember to cherish life. I am reminded moment by moment by my body that everything is gift, nothing is to be taken for granted. This window of feeling well will not last forever. Similarly, this physical pain will also subside eventually. And we will all one day cross over the threshold and leave this world. Joy and sorrow are sisters; each carves out room in us to experience the other more deeply.
On my good days, I still sometimes do a lot, sometimes beyond my body’s capacity, and I feel the impact. Productivity is seductive. I still have a lot of bad days where most of my hours are spent horizontal despite how well I try to take care of myself. The truth involves very little linear achievement and a lot more mess.
All these years after that first diagnosis, I keep discovering new layers of how my primary vocation is to relish this vessel of flesh, blood, and bone, and to make time for the always erupting griefs. I’m called to serve from a place of rest and abundance rather than exhaustion and scarcity, and to treasure myself apart from all the things I can do.”