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
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The Independent Culture
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