Faith & Reason: I don't want to be brave, just ordinary, thanks

The attitude of the able-bodied to people with terminal illness reveals our society's deep-rooted tendency to value people for what they do, rather than who they are

WHY DO the able-bodied so often describe the disabled as brave? I pondered that question this week as Trevor McDonald presented the "and finally" on the early-evening ITN news.

The person whom Trevor introduced as brave was Zoe Koplowitz, a 50-year- old New Yorker who had completed the London Marathon. Zoe had multiple sclerosis and finished the 26-mile course aided by two purple crutches and a clutch of escorts from the Yeomanry Artillery Regiment. She crossed the ribbon 30 hours and 10 minutes after she started the race, making her average speed approximately 0.87 miles per hour.

It was a great story. It showed Zoe was witty, persistent, determined and skilled in the fine art of pacing herself. But was she brave? I'm not so sure. The word "brave" tends to be a knee-jerk epithet for people with incurable diseases. It gets attached to those living with cancer or multiple sclerosis as surely as "braless" gets stuck to Charlie Dimmock. Cardinal Basil Hume announces he has cancer, and out comes the headline: "The courage of Cardinal Hume." It's as though we are brave by virtue of being ill. But can you be "brave" when you have no choice?

It's brave when a teacher is confronted by an armed killer and gets shot because he has been standing so he can tell his students to take cover. That's brave, because he could have behaved otherwise. But, if you have cancer or multiple sclerosis, then there is no alternative to getting on with life. Most of us would rather be able-bodied cowards. The only reason we aren't is because we can't be. Calling us "brave" reduces the meaning of the word.

It could be argued, however, that we call Zoe and Basil "brave" not simply because they have MS and cancer respectively, but because they aren't giving in to their diseases. Ms Koplowitz is completing marathons and Cardinal Hume is getting on with business as usual. They aren't letting their illnesses get in their way.

That brings me to the second problem I have with "brave". All too often the reason why the disabled are admired is because they are behaving as similarly to the able-bodied as possible. Would Trevor McDonald have been as impressed with Ms Koplowitz if she had said, "It was my lifelong ambition to run a marathon, but when I got MS my priorities changed. I'd rather grow roses now"? Would the headline writers have been as admiring of Cardinal Hume if he had said: "It had been my intention to fulfil the Pope's wishes by leading the Church into the next Millennium but now my circumstances are different. I want to retire so I can grieve, pray and be with my brothers at Ampleforth?"

Of course if Ms Koplowitz experiences marathons as a way of taking control of her life again, then she should do them. And if Cardinal Hume feels called to carry on working for as long as possible, then we should respect that choice and support him in it. But we must guard against the tendency to admire people struck by disease for seeming to behave just as though they're healthy.

In the Gospel of Luke there is a story about two sisters called Martha and Mary. When Jesus went to their house Martha was busy doing the food while Mary was sitting around listening to him. Martha got fed up with this and asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her.

"Martha, Martha," said Jesus. "You worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part." This is another great story and one which works at a corporate as well as an individual level. As a society we consistently choose Martha's way over Mary's. We value "doing", "achieving" and "being productive" over sitting down and taking it all in. We like people to keep busy and keep smiling.

When we value rushing around over staying still and getting thing done over paying attention we are effectively valuing the able-bodied over the disabled. One challenge of the Gospel story is to hear how it is possible for the "ill" to remind the "healthy" that there is a better way. Whenever we are overly impressed by the activities of the sick, we are colluding with the lie that being up-and-about and busy is what matters most.

I'm not saying that this is what Ms Koplowitz and Cardinal Hume are doing. I am saying we must ask ourselves why we think it "braver" to respond to illness by working and doing a marathon than by spending time with friends and thanking God for food, love and a showery April day.

My third reason for questioning the haste with which people living with incurable diseases are described as "brave", is that it sets us apart. If I'm called "brave" it feels as though I'm looking over my shoulder and seeing everyone else running in the opposite direction. I experience "brave" as being told: "You're on your own, mate."

When we describe people as "brave" we are seeing them as different from us. When we describe them as an "inspiration" we recognise that we are on the same journey; the only difference being that they are one step ahead.

Jo Ind is the author of `Fat is a Spiritual Issue'. She has multiple sclerosis

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea