The Presumptiveness of Health Privilege in Spirituality

I live a happy, spiritually fulfilled life. I am a spirituality and parenting author and speaker who teaches about gratitude, unconditional love, and open communication. I share ways to raise spiritually open and aware children who will know how to love themselves and others, envisioning themselves as part of the greater whole, all while having a strong sense of their boundaries, desires, and ability to protect themselves from outside manipulation. I believe in the inner goodness of all human beings, I love without reservation, and I send wishes and blessings of peace, harmony, and well-being to every creature I meet. I meditate, connect with the Universal energy that I believe is in all of us, and feel the harmony of all that Is. I also happen to have had an autoimmune disease for over twenty years that limits my energy and my physical activities; but I haven’t let it stop my happiness.

Most people will not be deterred by the last sentence, but some “spiritual” and “religious” people will judge the veracity of the entire preceding paragraph by that final sentence. Some people, guided by health privilege* will read this and decide that I can be none of the things that I AM because they do not believe one can be completely spiritually healthy and evolved, and yet have physical problems. These ideas discount the very process by which disease occurs, which is a complex interplay between biology and environment.

In The Marvelous Transformation: Living Well with Autoimmune Disease, I confront head-on the misapplied concept, from both mainstream religion and new-age spirituality, that if you are devout enough you can pray or believe away your sickness. I discuss the many times I have been told that the disease could be exorcised from my body (as if it was brought to me by a demon) and cleansed away through thought. However, the notion that you “create your own reality” is more nuanced than that, it is about developing a coping skill that leads spiritually healthy and aware individuals to live emotionally and mentally healthy lives despite adversity.

Creating your own reality means taking responsibility for yourself and your health; investigating all possible solutions and treatments, and accepting help when offered, while understanding that some things may stay outside of your control, and being okay with that while still maintaining an understanding of who you are. Creating your own reality, the crux of spiritual health, means facing health issues honestly and openly and not allowing them to control your life, even while they may, to an extent, control your physicality. It means living a happy and fulfilled life, from within, regardless of the external circumstance of your health.

Throughout my life I have encountered well-meaning people who have recommended treatments, energy work, and other healing modalities as sure antidotes, nay cures, to my disease. I have been told that these treatments’ failure to eradicate my disease were not due to the shortcomings of the treatments (or the strength of my disease), but rather my failure of belief, or worse, some character or spiritual defect in which I was failing to let go of the disease. Nothing can be further from the truth. If this was truly a case of choice, believe me, I would have eliminated my disease long ago. Instead, this disease, as dastardly as it is to comprehend, may have something to do with my life’s journey and the “getting around the disease,” i.e.  living a life of purpose, of love, happiness, positivity, gratitude, and teaching others must be flowing, in some part, from it!

This doesn’t mean that I have accepted the disease as it presents and without hope for improvement. I have altered my nutritional intake significantly to account for the foods that I know worsen my condition. I have incorporated many wellness techniques (holistic modalities, energy work, meditation, etc.,) into my daily life to lessen the effects of the disease and the medications. And I have benefited from many different treatments, even the ones described to me by my well-meaning friends and acquaintances. I just haven’t been cured by the snap of a finger. I believe that creating your own reality means transcending all of these details and living a thriving, happy, and fulfilled life anyway. I have found that often, spiritual healing is about examining and easing your thoughts surrounding a concept or disease rather than actually healing the disease itself.

One would think that, after writing a book about living well with chronic illness, I would be immune to others’ barbs and judgments about being ill and spiritual. But alas, I am not. I noticed, lately, as I faced another round of unwanted tests for another possible, unwelcome, complication, that I was feeling vulnerable to judgment again. I shared publicly about the tests with a prompt to cherish life because, while I am not scared about what these tests will bring, I think we can all benefit from a reminder to slow down and enjoy life. In return I got many messages of kindness, but I also got the sense of some judgment from others.

I wondered, would people ever really accept my messages since I have been transparent about my physical illness? Will they use that as a disqualifier for my spiritual “cleanliness?” Would they listen to the great spiritual philosophers if they were ill? Dr. Wayne Dyer was one of the great spiritual thinkers, and was no less revered after his cancer, but he was believed to have cured himself. Debbie Ford had a long a beautiful career even after she became ill. But both of them were known and trusted prior to becoming ill. Has new thought or new age spirituality, which is supposedly known for its non-judgment, become too judgmental to accept me as a spiritual messenger because my body’s frailties pre-date my writing?

If it has, I worry, not so much for myself, but for the other people around me who are fighting for their lives. I am spiritually sound. I am strong in my convictions. I am content in my wholeness of self and my connection to the Source. And so, even though I may feel a slight sting of betrayal by the judgment of those who claim not to be so, I worry about others who may not feel so strong in themselves and who may be more affected by the opinions of others.

These other patients, who are worried about what others think of them, might not feel so secure in themselves and may begin to question their own worth, their own spiritual path, and their own ability to carve out a place of hope for themselves. Even if they aren’t trying to write, teach, or share spiritual or religious principles with others, their feelings can still be hurt. They can still be made to feel less worthy, less taken care of by their God, and more cheated by the very principles they ascribe to of prayer and positive thinking.

When those with health privilege look upon others with health problems and deign to judge as to why or how they got there, or how or why they should be able to get out of those problems, it only sets us apart from each other and does nothing to make people feel included, taken care of, or loved.

 


*Health privilege is a somewhat newer term, growing out of the more recognizable concept ofwhite privilege in which one who is in the predominant class thinks they can look upon the minority class and dictate characteristics to them. That the majority class can move freely, assume certain attributes of life, never understanding that the minority class may not enjoy the same benefits or freedoms, and they then presume to make judgments about the minority class as to why they do not “succeed” to the same level as the majority (as if the playing field were level and fair).




Emily A. Filmore is the author of The Marvelous Transformation: Living Well with Autoimmune Disease about her experiences with chronic illness. (Central Recovery Press, 2015). She is also the With My Child series of children's books about family bonding. Withmychildseries.com. She is the co-author of Conversations with God for Parents with Neale Donald Walsch and Laurie Lankins Farley. (Rainbow Ridge, 2015).