If you’re blind, you’re no stranger to the experience of having a religious zealot approach you to tell you that they’re going to pray for you, and that God will listen to their prayers, and give you your sight back. Such encounters used to irritate the hell out of me, but no longer. As someone who starts off with a deep theoretical interest in religion and its expression, I’ve come to view these experiences as an opportunity for a little informal research, and scope for entertainment.
Recently at a party, when discussing this phenomenon, a blind friend of mine said, “You know, I’ve got a lot bigger problems than my blindness, but none of those religious people seem to care about those ones.” I was inspired by this insightful remark, so today, I tried to gain a bit more traction with the All mighty, since the fellow on my bus seemed so certain that he had a direct line. This lucky fellow came and stood in front of my partner and myself and declaimed with fervor.
Divine insider: “I’m going to pray for you, and pretty soon you’re going to be able to see.”
Me: “Oh really! Do you think that will work?”
D.I.: “Oh yeah! This one time, I prayed for this guy who had bruises all over his face, and two weeks later they were all gone!”
Me: “Wow, that’s impressive.”
D.I.: “God answers my prayers.”
Me: “Oh, you must be pretty powerful too. Any idea when it will happen? I’d like to be prepared.”
D.I.: “Oh Lord Jesus, give these two people their sight back. (To us,) Pretty soon you’ll be able to throw those canes away.”
Me: “hmm, wow. You know, I’d like to lose some weight too, do you think you could pray for that as well?”
D.I.: “Oh God, let the fat melt off this woman, just like a treadmill. Let her lose the fat!”
There then ensued more questions and answers in which I, with genuine curiosity, tried to understand the shape and function of this man’s faith. I’m perpetually interested in how religion manifests in people, and what they do with it. My gentle suggestion that God needs lots of help, and that good deeds may be as important as prayer didn’t seem to impress him much, but I was reassured that constantly fighting against “The enemy,” (Satan,) is required. He seemed harmless, and entirely well-intentioned, but we made sure to let him precede us off the bus at the station by a dozen people or so, just to guarantee our encounter was at an end.
I’m not a callus person, and I absolutely don’t intend mockery toward either religious people, or those who might be playing with a deck different than the one I’m using. That said, I don’t feel that freedom of expression, or a different experience of the world means that I need to remain passive in the face of condescension. I used to squirm uncomfortably and wait for such people to go away. Now I engage with them in a friendly and cheerful manner.
I personally think it’s presumptuous to:
(A) confront a stranger with your religious beliefs unsolicited,
(B) assume you know what’s best for a stranger because their plight touches on one of your deepest fears,
(C) intrude on a stranger’s privacy for the purpose of telling them that you’re about to do something “for them” which they haven’t asked for, and which should arguably be a private act, i.e. prayer,
(D) tacitly assert that your prayers are more effective, because, if my plight is truly prayer-worthy, surely I’ve prayed every day of my life to be freed from it.
Of course, just like when that sweaty shirtless guy ignored my request to take his elbow, instead clamping my forearm against his grimy rib cage to guide me past his construction project, I must remember that all these people mean well. Good intentions are important; where would the world be without them? And yet, each visibly disabled person has to mediate our reactions, and find a line to walk when our boundaries, be they physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual, are crossed. In my estimation, this happens to disabled people about 15 times more often than it does to able-bodied people. As with any group, responses and approaches are as varied as the group itself. My response these days is to do my best to think on my feet, and react in a way that allows me to maintain my own dignity, and still make my point when I can. If I’m the only one in the situation who gets my point, well at least I’ve done my best. I can’t educate the world; it’s too tiring. The best I can hope for is to keep my sense of humor sufficiently so that I never lose my temper and say something hurtful. That’s not the right answer; that’s just my answer, right now.