Thursday, June 21, 2012

Disability Theory, Motherhood, and a Case for Parental Leave

As someone with a hearing loss, I've been interested in disability theory though mostly as a sideline.  If I were to try to categorize theories, especially in relation to the dominant ones on display when it comes to disability, I'd say that there are two main views people tend to hold.  One is the medical model view: disability is something that needs to be fixed so that the disabled person can function as normally as possible.  On this view, disability is a curse, something to hide (and hide from), because no "normal" person can imagine being disabled.  People who tend to hold the view that disability is horrible and must be done away with also tend look at me funny - in my case, they wonder what country I hail from (because my speech isn't perfect), and they shake their heads and note that there's this great "new" technology maybe I haven't heard of - cochlear implants.  To which I just shake my head and say, again and again, technology can't solve everything.  Medicine can't solve everything.  I don't qualify for cochlear implants.  (And by the way, they're not a perfect fix, either.... but that's for another post.)  I don't even know what has caused my hearing loss: it's not genetic, it's not disease-related, so far as we know.  And so it is just not fixable in the way we'd like to think that most disabilities are fixable.

A second view is one I've heard called the social theory of disability.  This is a view that makes a distinction between being impaired and being disabled.  It is the case that bodies might be impaired - prevent from doing the functions that they would generally do.  Impairments can be temporary or permanent, so most people have some kind of impairment, even if it doesn't count as a "disability" in the medical model. Broken ankles are impairments; having short fingers might be an impairment; perhaps even baldness could count as an impairment.

What turns an impairment into a disability, though, is when that impairment prevents social interaction. But here's the kicker: in the social model of disability, it is SOCIETY that is often at fault for preventing an individual's social interaction: doors that aren't wide enough for wheelchairs, or rampless-sets of stairs, or counters that are too high for short people and those in wheelchairs, alike. 

Even more: what some studies of disability accommodations have suggested is that these accommodations actually end up being beneficial to a much wider group of people than the target "disabled' audience.  Ramps are often used by people who can easily climb stairs, but who find a ramp to be easier to navigate, especially in poor weather, for example.  Closed captioning systems are beneficial for people who don't have hearing loss but who find that captions aid in their visual and auditory understanding.

So by now you're starting to wonder: where's the motherhood and parental leave in this post?  Here it is: yet another story about a full-time professional mother who struggles, and fails, to figure out how to "balance" it all.   This story, too, about working parents struggling to care for their sick children also strikes a chord. 

Some of the commenters at that story suggest that the problem is the babies.  Women just shouldn't have children, or else they should be prepared to take knocks at work.  I think that kind of view of children shortchanges both children and their parents, because it presumes that each one of us exists in a kind of individual packaging, and that we, as individuals, exist primarily for the good of our workplaces.  It presumes, as well, that workplaces should have no interest in societal life beyond the internal functioning of the corporation.

But neither parents, nor children, nor workplaces can exist happily with that kind of a mindset, much as we like to think that we do.

I suggest that we've been thinking about having and raising children primarily in a medical model - one that presumes it would, indeed, be better not to have them, but if we do (pesky biology!) well, there's the possibility of 12 weeks' unpaid leave.  And heaven forbid the children get sick: as the boss of the woman in the second article says: "Might as well just not come back to work."

Such a view makes it seem that a corporation exists - and is supposed to exist - on its own merits, with no reference to human society.  In this medical model we are supposed to rid ourselves of everything that is not "normal", or at least, that does not help us pretend we are high-efficiency machines.

The weird thing about that is that we, as individuals, do not think about our work that way.  It does not exist on its own merits, but it exists for some human purpose, usually involving being able to pay the bills and ensure family livelihood.  There are other purposes of work, too, including personal fulfillment, and helping communities. 

Our work is necessarily tied to our social lives, but American workplaces try to maintain distance between us and our social lives.  Indeed, a 2010 study suggests that only 16% of major corporations now offer benefits like maternity leave compared to 27% a decade prior.  Yet at the same time, companies are experiencing workers with far greater job dissatisfaction, especially because of lack of flex time, leave time, and other types of family assistance.  (See here for interesting slide show on this issue.)

What if, instead, workplaces were to envision children along the lines of a social model of disability?  Having children only disables parents insofar as their working arrangements are unnecessarily made too inflexible to be good parents and good workers, both.  We have already generated a list of possibilities: telecommuting, day cares onsite, and so on.  People in other parts of the globe have also experienced a range of options and we could learn from them. 

Being able to do good parenting can be a factor in being able to be a good employee - but more importantly, acknowledging the need to help families in terms of child and elder care also acknowledges that we are all - corporation, employee, and family, in this together.  Just as a social model of disability is found to be beneficial for those not in the target group, so too I think that flex time and better sick leave and family leave policies can benefit people beyond the stereotypical "young family" that is the target of these policies.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Spirituality versus Religion: Or maybe it's not new....

I've been reading a lot lately around the blogosphere from people who find themselves at odds with "traditional Christianity," by which seems to be meant "the version of Christianity I grew up with."  One of the most interesting is here at Rachel Held Evans' blog: Kim Van Brunt describes leaving traditional worship services, in part because she felt the traditions themselves - the bulletins and Wednesday night prayer services and so on - were stilting her family's ability to hear and live the gospel.  Many of the commenters complained that she seemed to be advocating a church of one, an individual's paradisaical version of Christ's body - so before readers here jump to that conclusion, let me just say that in her own response to the comments, she now belongs to what would probably be called a "house church" - an informal gathering of people meeting to support and witness to each other.

There are others feeling compressed by "tradition".  One of the big ones, of course, is the viral video "Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus" which was followed up with numerous posts about being spiritual but not religious.  In another vein, there have been Catholics thinking through the contraception debates in relation to feeling like the "hierarchy".  In still another vein, members of the "emergent church" who feel that "traditional" forms of Christianity are increasingly irrelevant.  I'm putting "tradition" and "traditional" in quotes here because I don't think all of these various groups mean tradition in the same way - so it would be a mistake to equate the use of those words necessarily.  That said, I do think all of these posters bear some family resemblance to each other - they may not mean exactly the same things, but they're each hitting a common nerve about religion.

When I read or watch these posts, I often feel some sympathy - I've been there myself, more than a few times.  For example, I've felt anger, apathy, disllusionment, annoyance, and sometimes something close to despair upon reciting the Lord's prayer for the nth time.  All the criticism of it being rote, mechanical, dry, repetitive and so on, can be, well, true.  The Lord's Prayer is emblematic of a "traditional" worship service as a whole: it can feel very much like you get to church, and you're just going through the whole show (whatever your version of the show is) again and it really does feel like a show.  The choir seems poised for a perfect performance; the sermon/homily becomes the main act; worshippers seem more like a clapping audience than actual participants in worshipping God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The thing is, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is so weird and wholly, utterly different from us, that a staid old worship service just won't suit.  After all:  "My ways are not your ways, says the Lord God."

Yet - I can't help but feel a sense of deja vu about all this too, a sense that there might be a lot of fellow believers feeling like they're having to do something new - when, in fact, I wonder if perhaps they're actually reinventing the wheel.

That is to say: discontent or disllusionment with "traditional" religion has been around, well, for the whole of the "tradition."

 I think of Augustine here, grown up with a Christian mother and a pagan dad, a 5th century version of a mixed religious family - he thought that scripture and prayer and all that sort of thing were pointless nonsense - until he began to wonder if there was something else going on there, after all.  Eventually he was not only baptized but made bishop of Hippo, in Northern Africa. As his treatises and catechetical sermons bear out, on his view, while rote worship appeared the same, it also opened up to all the beauty, mystery and craziness of God's love for us.

I think of John Wesley - born into a Christian family, raised as a Christian, but didn't quite feel the significance of the rote words of his childhood faith.  He and his brother both wanted a serious faith and started a "Holy Club" at university.  Still later, he went on a mission trip to Georgia, because he thought evangelizing in a foreign land would be evidence of true desire of God, and real faith.  On that trip, he discovered that in fact, being a missionary was not his vocation - and returned to his native England. It was a couple years later that Wesley found his heart "strangely warmed" at Aldersgate and went on to convert many to an intense love of and life for God.  He brought something new: he brought new hymns, and developed something of a new structure in his small group societies -   but he also relied on some of the same 'ol - prayer books, scripture, clergy, and the liturgy of the Eucharist.

I think of Theresa of Avila, who grew up in a thoroughly Christian home, went away to a convent but spent her time simpering in the guest room - cosmetics and fine food took far more precedence than the convent's prayer.  Eventually she, too, discovered a different calling and went on to reform the Carmelite Order, especially restoring its contemplative nature and its practices of fasting, prayer and poverty.  She opened some 83 women's houses, and wrote much that has been influential up to our present day.

In particular, she describes (in her book Interior Castles) the way in which rote prayer and worship can seem so dry - and that this experience is but one of many  necessary levels of a spiritual journey toward God.  At the same time, there are other times on that journey when rote prayer is the only way we can pray at all.

There are many more people I could name, but perhaps these three suffice for now.  I have three points in bringing them up:

1) Disillusionment or discontent is not new, and those who feel disillusioned are not alone.  There are a whole host of witnesses - and not just those alive in this world at the present moment.  Just as with Theresa, John, and Augustine, above, I think there are possibilities for God to make our discontent much more radical than any of us have in mind - to the point that perhaps we might even be contributing to the development of "traditional Christianity" by founding new religious orders, or preaching more sermons and so on.  I think this means radically embracing "traditional Christianity" in all kinds of ways, which relates to my next point....

2) Disillusionment is not cause for a rejection of "the tradition" - it is cause to embrace it more fully and deeply.  Augustine, Theresa or John Wesley would never say that they had "fixed" the church; there were many times that they felt that the going was difficult.  One of my favorite of Theresa's words of wisdom: "We must strive and strive and strive, for we were meant for nothing less." Nonetheless these three remained committed to the people and places God had given them, which included parishes, dioceses, orders, and so on.  Sometimes they did this despite that the institutions gave them grief, closed down houses, brought them before the Inquisition, refused to ordain bishops headed to America, and so on.  And yet, I think it is precisely because of their commitments to people/places/institutions, in spite of everything, that enables us to see how much God worked through them.

3) Disillusionment is simply part of Christianity.  I think Theresa is right in this.  And I think we Christians are likely to experience bouts of it again and again, interspersed with more hopeful signs of community life too.  Christ calls us together to be the Body - broken and bruised as we are, with people who have been hurt by other Christians, and with all the variety of denominations and infighting that Christians "share" with each other.

But it is also "traditional Christianity", that Body of Christ, which is re-forming the way I see myself and the world.  It is where I have learned:

  • Not to objectify my body.  I know people often criticize Christians for their views on sex, which seem antithetical to the pleasure that our human bodies desire.  But I have to say: in this vamped up culture where sex oozes from most advertisements and where I often feel the need to look act and dress a certain way, it is so entirely refreshing to go to a monastery (or New Monastic community) and not be looked at in that way.  And of course - the Eucharist, the premier place where everyone gets to be invited to the table, including those I'd never invite to my house for dinner - that teaches me something about not objectifying my body either.
  • That I, too, do things to hurt others.  My experience of "secular culture" is one that by and large presumes I can do no wrong, so long as I do what feels right to me, and it doesn't affect anyone else.  But when I go to mass and I've got to pass the peace with older people and younger people and smelly people and so on, I begin to realize that it just isn't as simple as doing what feels right to me, and not affecting others.  In fact, some people need me - or need someone - to be there for them, in ways that means I can't just be about myself.
  • That I need you.  You're part of the arm of Christ, you're part of the Body that gathers.  I need you.  Including the people who raise all the pesky questions I don't ask.  And I hope I'm asking pesky questions (maybe from a different direction) of you too.  I'm not it, and neither are you.  So I need you.  And if there's one thing that joins us together - it's that we've committed to be on The Way together.
In my way of thinking, that means that sometimes, even if I don't particularly feel like "going through the motions" one more time, I'm going to do it anyway - because someone needs to hear everyone all together saying "thy will be done".  And someone else's two year old needs to see others kneeling and standing and praying and learn this way of life that is Christianity.  And someone else - maybe me - needs to some of the kneeling, because we don't kneel enough - we're not quiet enough - in this world of ours.