So many of us ask this question, either about ourselves or about others. Lady Gaga has also most graciously written a song about it. With the progress we’ve made in the human genome project and our understanding of genetics in general, we are finding more and more things that ‘wire’ a person to behave in a certain way. So, we find ourselves asking the question, “If I was born this way, why am I being blamed? That’s not fair!” Let’s discuss the extremes we have when discussing genetic issues: “celebrating a disease” and “victimising the victim”.
First, let’s discuss what a ‘disease’ is…I promise, it’s relevant. For simplicity, let’s just use the definition from your local Apple dictionary:
a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, esp. one that produces specific signs or symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury: bacterial meningitis is a rare disease | a possible cause of heart disease.
• a particular quality, habit, or disposition regarded as adversely affecting a person or group of people: departmental administration has often led to the dread disease of departmentalitis.
A lot of us talk about disease in a negative sense, that’s why we have expressions like, “they’re treating me like I have some kind of disease!” When, in reality, a disease is just something that strays from the proper functioning or intent of the creature or object or thing. It’s a condition or a state. We’ll leave the discussion of “blame” for later. For all intents and purposes, a disease is simply some kind of aberration from the original intent of that thing. That can have positive effects, and it can have negative ones also.
Where does disease come from?
In a worldly sense, disease comes from a multitude of things. Often it’s because of some kind of radiation, or some kind of exposure that affects a gene’s integrity. If the gene is morphed or modified in some way, this leads to a different kind of “expression” of that gene. These exposures can come from so many sources, some of them are voluntary, and some are involuntary. If we pollute the world, for example, there are consequences on our genetics, and that can cause increased diseases (like cancer, for example).
So why is there disease in the world? Unfortunately, it comes back to that Garden, as usual. God created the world in a perfect balance, and He gave us the freedom choose what to do with it. When we chose to sin, we introduced spiritual disease in ourselves (we put something totally foreign into ourselves), but the whole world fell. We took knowledge that we didn’t know how to deal with yet. The more we interacted with the world, the shorter our life spans became, with the exception of a slight increase in the last century because of technology and science. Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean that all damage done to the world was willful and intentional, some of it was negligence and some of it was ignorance. We still are trying to understand this world. The Lord entrusted the earth to us, and commanded us to “subdue it”. We’ve done our best with that sometimes, other times we haven’t cared enough.
For the purpose of understanding things better, let’s discuss the various diseases and how we get them, so that we can understand this whole “blame” thing.
Causality versus Predisposition
Not all genetic malfunctions cause a disease per se, but some genetic factors predispose people to different things. For example, there are people who are genetically predisposed to addictions, we say that they have “addictive personalities”. They seem to have a genetic make-up that makes them more likely to become “dependent” on various substances.
I remember being taught in my intro psych class years ago that there are males who are born with a higher propensity towards physical aggression and violence because of factors during pregnancy and/or genetic factors. Both of these were out of his control, but the effects are possible.
In this kind of ‘aberration’, a person had no say in how he/she was born, but can end up with problems that he/she finds very difficult, and are different from the majority of society.
There are some genetic aberrations, however, that do cause ‘things’ to happen. These factors are more easily studied. For example, cystic fibrosis, G6DP deficiency, auto-immune diseases, Alzheimer’s, MS, Diabetes and other diseases well known of late are strongly or entirely associated with genetics. There are some conditions in which certain controls can help prevent the disease from developing, because there are environmental factors that affect its expression. But there are others where the disease will inevitably rear it’s angry head, and the person is forced to battle with it.
Nature vs Nurture
So, genetics play a role in these diseases, sometimes 100% and sometimes less. This is the differentiation that is always discussed in classrooms: ‘nature vs nurture’. This refers to what kind of things are determined totally by genetics, and what environmental factors might affect things.
Take for example, the person with the predisposition to addiction. This person will not know that he has this issue until he’s tried the substance upon which he becomes dependent. If he is never exposed to the drugs or alcohol or whatever it is, he will not know that the genetics affect him.
In a bigger sense, our interactions with society and the world around us strongly influence who we become and how we behave. Imagine a world where social drinking and recreational drugs did not exist. The person with that gene would never know he had a potential issue! Someone who grew up in an environment where all they did was ride horses and cut down trees, might never become interested in flying planes or in engineering, even though he might have some kind of natural adeptness in mathematics or physics.
These are personality examples, but there are also natural factors that can influence genetic diseases as well. Exposure to certain environmental factors might facilitate the expression of an aberrant gene. For example, some people speculate that chemical toxins might cause the Parkinson’s gene to become “active”.
To test if something is 100% genetically determined, we usually look for genetically identical twins to see if both twins expressed the exact same thing. If they did not, it means that nurture is involved to some extent in the abnormality.
Today, there are certain things that we are saying are genetic, and we are told that we should encourage people to ‘celebrate’ the deviance from the norm. I am not sure how sensical or rational this is.
If something is a genetic aberration, what is there to celebrate about the aberration? The person did not do something astounding, he or she was simply born that way. If we, for the sake of argument, say that everything is a process of genetic evolution, if an aberration happened, then why is that saying that something was ‘meant’ to be this way? Evolution admits that exposure and various factors affect the evolution of a thing, whether positive or negative. It was an aberration; do we celebrate aberrations?
Should we “celebrate” Parkinson’s or G6PD deficiency? Should we have parties encouraging people to be excited about diabetes? It seems a little bizarre to most people, and yet we selectively do it with other deviances from other norms. If we want to encourage people in their battle with these things, that is noble, but our focus seems misdirected if we are spending our time celebrating the aberration itself.
Who’s Fault is it?
If we’re going to do the blame game, a lot of this is a result of the collective free will of humanity. Again, it all goes back to that garden fiasco as discussed above and in another post on this blog. But this ‘fault’ thing is sort of redundant and unnecessary because we have no control in it today, and nobody is “punishing” us, we simply have consequences from our choices. I hate this question, but I’ll humour it for a moment, but read to the end to see why this should not be our focus.
Let’s get Biblical. We’re all familiar with the story of the man born blind. The man’s born, the dude has no eyes, and the disciples very presumptuously inquire, “is this the parents’ sin or the kid’s sin that caused this disease?” It was an ignorant inquiry, they didn’t just ask the question, they were ready to pounce with the blame game. The Lord replied that it had nothing to do with anyone’s sin, and that the Lord would be glorified in it! He didn’t say that He made this person blind so that He could be glorified, He simply said that He would be glorified in it.
Now, what brought the glory about? It was the healing of the man born blind, it was not a celebration of blindness! The Lord did not say, “Blessed are you, blind man, you ought to rejoice that you have blindness!” He healed the man. He took his weakness and fixed it.
Now this sounds nice and simple, but did the Lord heal every living blind person? No, He didn’t. Why did He choose to heal this man? I have no idea. I don’t think anyone knows. We can meditate on different possibilities, we can appreciate that it happened because of the lessons we can draw from it, but we do not know why God’s grace worked with this person in this particular way (be careful not to assume that nobody else received a different grace!). The point, however, is that He did it, He expressed that it had nothing to do with sin, and the solution was to heal it, not to encourage someone to wallow in it.
Let’s look at modern society and point out the absurdity of celebration. Someone who has a genetic predisposition to addiction, is not encouraged to celebrate addiction. Someone prone to violent behaviour is not held unaccountable for violent behaviour. Society works on finding ways to support these people, to encourage them, to shield them where possible and to offer treatment where possible, even though some of these people find their greatest emotional happiness (not true joy) when fulfilling their natural dispositions. The thing is though, their “natural” disposition is not “natural”, it was natural to them because they were born that way, but it was not the way that things were naturally designed, it was an accident of some kind, somewhere along the line of our history. So let’s not be misguided in our understanding.
This is very important, because we sometimes forget about our collective responsibility towards one another in society, and that our decisions and what we “normalise” have long-term effects on ourselves and society at large. We are affecting very strongly both the “nature and nurture” aspects of living, and sometimes get pulled into strong social movements that might actually be nonsensical at best, or hazardous at worst.
If we encourage the celebration of a disease, then we can forget what the cause of that disease really was. We can encourage behaviours that are not necessarily healthy for society in whatever way, all in the guise of trying to show love and support. The love and support is not to praise a disease, but to help a person. But if in our nurturing environment, we start to vote diseases as celebratory, what are we really saying?
What we need to nurture is wholeness in Christ and whatever that entails. We need to nurture what is right, NOT what is comfortable.
Let’s get back to the spiritual dimension for a bit. We’re Christians. We believe that there’s a devil. If you don’t believe in the devil’s existence or his mission, then that’s your choice, but you’re not an Orthodox Christian if you do not. The devil has an influence on your body. In more than one story of our Lord’s exorcisms, it would be written that the person was deaf or mute or both, but as soon as the Lord commanded out the demon, the person was ‘whole again’. The devil is able to affect your physical health. So sometimes the devil has a role in things, and if we celebrate his work or don’t recognise something as a warfare, we normalise his work and actively encourage him to do work on us.
Sometimes the devil’s work is coupled with natural or genetic difficulties of other kinds, but his work is also real. So spiritual warfare and spiritual life is as important as all other “nurture and environmental” factors that affect health. This is part of spiritual health, and whether you know it or not, your physical and spiritual health are intrinsically linked. There is no life to the body without a spirit nor is there life to the spirit without the body.
So again, whose fault is it?
The question is actually irrelevant, it’s a state of being, a condition, and there is no reason to discuss blame because nobody is being blamed. Our Lord never convicted people coming to Him to be healed, even when the cause of the disease was because of sin. He simply told them, “go and sin no more” when sin was involved.
When did our Lord ever convict a sinner? When the Samaritan woman came to Him, He praised her for her honesty and converted her heart. When the woman caught in adultery was brought to Him, He first defended her, then reassured her that, “I don’t condemn you either”. There was never a message of blame, there was never a long discourse of, “You know that this is totally your fault right? You know that if you hadn’t done this, that and the other thing you’d be fine right now, eh?” None of that.
So let’s drop the blame game, and let’s not falsely celebrate, rather let’s do what our Lord did: transfigure.
The proper thing to do is not to scare people or shame people in their condition – physical or spiritual – it’s to love them unconditionally, and to help them in whatever way that we are able. A person should not be afraid to say that they have a disease, they should believe that the Church is a hospital open to all. Rather than yell at a patient for being a patient, no matter what has caused the illness, we should learn how to treat the patient, support the patient, and bring Him closer to the true Physician. If He wants to be healed, then let him receive treatment, even if it means lifelong treatment! We’re all in treatment! If a person refuses treatment, respect his or her free-will! If we spend our time blaming, however, tell me why the person would ever approach us?
All of us have some kind of disease, physical or spiritual. When we have them, there’s no point in saying “well, it’s my wish/right/desire to have such and such”, unfortunately, what we’ve done to ourselves as a global community has made certain things impossible for some of us. A blind person can’t demand the right to see, no matter how much we sympathise with him. The blind person, however, may have to learn how to hear ridiculously well, he might develop his mind more, but he cannot waste his life wallowing in what ails him. Society can also become his eyes for him, while he becomes their ears.
The solution my friends, is to take our humanity, accept it, and then be transfigured! We need to do as the Lord did, He embraced our humanity in all of its weakness and frailty and glorified it! He took our weaknesses and transfigured it! If we want to be transfigured, then we must take the way of the Cross. The Cross was shameful and disgusting, but the Lord took it, carried it, and transformed it. The weakness became glory, weakness became might, death became life.