I have nothing against Carrie Ann Inaba, one of the stars of Dancing with the Stars. Honestly. She’s smart, and a knockout. But sometimes I wish when celebrities got diagnosed with a disease they would just shut up and suffer. Not a lot. Just a little. In the rush from diagnosis to launching the Official Foot and Mouth Disease Foundation, they forget some of the things that suffering can teach us. Yes, suffering sucks. But in a strange and powerful paradox that the West has forgotten, it can also draw us into intimacy with God. It can be, to quote a man whom I will describe below, “a seal of our divine commission.”
Inaba has been diagnosed with arthritis — specifically spinal stenosis. This came as a result of years of dancing, and there is no cure. Inaba took to the internet to talk about her disease, but the diagnosis almost seemed a perfunctory aside to get to the meat of the piece which is to find a cure! Inaba tosses out some statistics and then begins to plug a massage website that supposedly helped alleviate the pain of stenosis.
When reading this — not to mention Jenny McCarthy’s autism activism, Elizabeth Hasselbeck’s celiac advocacy, Michael J. Fox’s ill-advised return to television, and Al Roker’s obesity, the treatment of which caused him to shart in the White House — I often think of one of my heroes, Father Ed Dowling, S.J.
Dowling was a descendant of Farrell Dowling, who had been exiled to Connaught, Ireland, in 1654 by Cromwell. A compulsive smoker and overeater who had crippling arthritis that forced him to use a cane, Dowling was intimate with suffering, although by all accounts his ebullient sense of humor and love of baseball made him a joy to be around. Dowling would get from his living quarters at St. Louis University to his office at Queen’s Work Hospital several miles away by standing in the middle of the street and whistling. He would arrive at work some days in a limousine and others on a garbage truck. “He had a good time on both rides,” one witness said.
In November 1940, Dowling, who was not an alcoholic, nonetheless became interested in the then new program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The organization was only a few years old and struggling. It had been formed when Bill Wilson, a New York stockbroker and alcoholic, had had a religious experience in a hospital while trying to dry out. Alcoholics Anonymous was an amalgam of Jungian psychology, which emphasized the value of religion in working wonders where science failed. Its Christianity was lifted from the Oxford Group, a nineteenth-century activist evangelical group, along with the then-progressive medical theory that alcoholism is a disease. The foundation of AA was, and is, the Twelve Steps, which encourage followers to admit they are alcoholics, list all their faults and share them with another human being, pray and meditate, have a spiritual awakening as a result, and “carry the message” to other alcoholics.
Dowling became friends with AA cofounder Bill Wilson. The two men often spoke of suffering as a paradoxical path to holiness. As Dowling would later put it, quoting Whittaker Chambers: “And yet it is at this point that man, that monstrous midget, still has the edge on the Devil. He suffers. Not one man, however base, quite lacks the capacity for the specific suffering which is the seal of his divine commission.”
It’s understandable that people would want to live without pain and defeat that which is trying to defeat them. It’s part of the human spirit. But there is also something tacky and superficial about pivoting so quickly from doctor’s office to picket line. And while humor is an essential part of dealing with a serious illness (trust me, I know), this can tip over unto unwise shtick. Michael J. Fox has exhibited real grace and humor in his living with Parkinson’s (I’ve always preferred “living with” to “battle with”; the later implies a clenched intensity that denies the cards the universe deals us). But when I saw the promo for the new Michael J. Fox Show, I cringed. The show seems like a series of bits that simultaneously deny the effect disease has had on Fox and yet celebrate that same disease as something that makes life hilarious. It doesn’t work. Fox cannot deliver lines with the magic spin he used to. And having a painful incurable illness sucks.
The truth is, a serious illness changes us. It can make us temperamental, exhausted, depressed and morbid. Yet it can also help us accept death and the will and wisdom of God. It would be nice if Carrie Ann Inaba, Michael Fox, and even non celebrities like myself who have suffered from illness spend more time in that space, and less time marching for cures.