Bearing the Burden: On Being Chosen to Suffer

September 6, 2012

About five years ago, while on a vacation at a resort in Ambergris Caye, Belize, two friends and I struck up a conversation with the couple in the next room over, who were also lounging lazily in hammocks and deck chairs as the afternoon turned to night. We swapped travel and life stories, and after a while it came out that they had a daughter who was developmentally disabled.

As I was prepared to offer my sympathies, she added that she felt special, that she had been specifically chosen by God to bear the burden and carry out the task. Referring to their daughter, she said, “It’s really a blessing, I’ve learned so much from her. She’s teaching me patience.”

I sat in my chair for a while silently nursing a beer. It had never occurred to me that the woman’s circumstances could be interpreted in that way. What a strange and cruel way for God to teach this woman lessons about patience, to give her daughter a profound mental disability. Surely there were other ways that God could have accomplished the same goal.

But it made sense, in a way: Those who feel obligated to care for those who cannot care for themselves often find reasons to justify devoting so much of themselves to the task. They are typically selfless, altruistic people who nevertheless suffer from compassion fatigue and normal resentment about their roles. Calling it a martyr complex sounds overly dismissive, but in fact it’s not far off the mark. I later saw a Dear Abby column (10/29/2009) in which a “Special-Needs Mom in Alabama” wrote in saying that “The last thing we need to hear is some self-righteous know-it-all putting us down for something we were hand-picked by God to do.” Both mothers shared the same belief, that they were “hand-picked by God” to take care of their children.

I’m not going to argue whether they were or were not hand-picked by God to bear the burden (or blessing) of having special needs children, but I can tell you that I have friends who have children who are disabled in various ways, and they do not consider it a blessing from heaven. I have nothing but admiration for those who take care of special needs children (and adults), and I respect however they wish to characterize their role. That being said, examining the psychology of their worldview is legitimate and informative.

I’ve encountered other examples. In 2008, Albuquerque postal carrier David Jenkins was sentenced to prison for over 300 years for molesting two girls, ages 10 and 11. As I read a newspaper story about it, one sentence stuck out: “The girl, clutching a purple stuffed monkey, said she believed what happened to her happened for a reason: to save other little girls from Jenkins.”

With my background in psychology, I found this girl’s worldview disturbing. This 10 year old girl was obviously coping with the molestation as best she could, and (perhaps healthily) trying to turn a horrific negative into a positive. The problem, in my mind, is that in her (and her therapists) attempt to recast herself from the victim to savior, she rationalized or justified the attack on her. She needs to offer no “reason” for the sexual assault; it was not her fault, and she had no control or influence over it. The “reason” she was molested is that Jenkins chose to break the law and violate her-not because it served some greater public good.

It’s natural to look for a “reason” when something bad happens to innocent people, but it’s a dangerous path that can lead to blaming the victim: Why did he victimize her instead of someone else? Did she do anything to provoke him? There is no “reason” or justification for sexual assault under any circumstances, ever-other than the choices made by the attacker.

The premise seemed to be that something bad (in this case the sexual molestation by Jenkins) was inevitable. From a logical point of view, this is of course simply not true: The fact that Jenkins molested her did not prevent him from molesting other girls as well-including her 11-year-old sibling. It’s not a zero-sum game in which Jenkins could only attack one girl, and therefore the fact that she was victimized somehow prevented someone else from being victimized. I may be mistaken, but I seem to recall similar themes emerging in interviews with kidnap and rape victims Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, when they were asked what helped get them through their terrible ordeals.

This idea of suffering for others is not new, of course; it is inherent in Christianity, in which Jesus died for the sins of mankind. Similarly, those who claim to suffer stigmata, the bleeding of crucifixion wounds, are said to symbolize Christ’s suffering by proxy.

There’s far more to this notion of “everything happening for a reason” than I can address in this short blog (including the ancient folkloric belief that the disabled are that way because they have been specially “touched” by God) but cases like this provide insight into how we see ourselves and others, and how we react to adversity.