Growing up in the various branches of the pentecostal church, I always knew it was unacceptable to get sick. In the sects we travelled in, the explanations for anything ranging from the common cold to terminal cancer were that you were experiencing a) punishment for some unknown wrongdoing, b) persecution by the devil, or c) a lack of faith. Call me nuts, but even as a kid I believed that there is biological basis for illness, and that we don’t bring things like tuberculosis on ourselves because we lack faith. Among the worse things you could do in the service of proving your faithfulness, however, was to voice such an opinion, or to (worst of all) actually get sick.
I may have to feel lucky that I wasn’t a particularly hale child. I may have been a viable candidate for a good pentecostal had I not always found myself outside a state of grace by getting sick or spraining an ankle. While I did learn not to tell anyone if I was in pain, I kept up a running internal commentary that was highly uncomplimentary to those who shouted from the pulpit that “God commands you to be well!,” etc., etc. As an adult who no longer subjects herself to those who would blame her immortal soul for the body’s catching a virus, I’ve even grown into someone who’s not scared to talk about living with a neurological illness (which I’ve written a little about here). I no longer think that silence is the same thing as strength, and it’s been very freeing to leave guilt and self-suspicion behind in these past years outside the church.
It has also been very curious to me that, lately, the tone of conversations about wellness among my more progressive friends has taken on a bit of what I can only call a pentecostal bent. This past weekend found me laid low by some virus or another that I suspect was gifted to me by one of my students at this time in the semester when everyone is run-down. I mentioned to some friends that, given the fact that I’ve been traveling across the country and doing so many events this spring in addition to teaching a decently sized class load, I’ve been swatting down one bug after another for most of the spring.
Had I been in one of the churches in which I grew up, I imagine I’d have been asked whether I was exhibiting enough faith, or was giving into the temptations of the devil. These days, my friends, who are well meaning enough, ask me whether I’m still eating gluten (yea. I am! Because I have no allergies to it, and wheat does not cause colds and flus. Viruses do, folks), or whether I’ve tried vegetarianism (yep. Did that for 8 years). The less tactful simply command me to quit drinking soda and eating processed foods, and flatly ignore me when I say that I don’t drink soda or eat processed foods. Clearly I’m not getting enough veggies (did I mention I keep an organic veggie garden?) or getting enough exercise (or that I run? Not that fast and not that far, of course, but I run.).
The assumption for this crowd of what one former boss of mine referred to as “organic yoga people” (hey, his words, not mine. Just…seemingly fitting) is that anyone who is sick, with anything from a flu to lymphoma, must be at a personal fault. Granted, we can all agree that abusing alcohol or drugs and eating mass quantities of what science tells us is unhealthy is unwise. But do we have to ferret out one another’s wheat-eating status to feel self enlightened? It seems a little like we’re looking for the devil when the germ theory of disease is still pretty viable.
What’s behind our desire to root out unrighteousness, whether it’s present at all? Are we so scared of sickness that we have to convince ourselves it can be totally avoided?