Keep Your Karma to Yourself (AKA, Disabled People Are Not Just Consequences).

Sometimes, I write posts that express a new idea I’m still processing and so it may come off a bit roughspun. This is one of those posts. Go gently on me!

We toss around the notion of karma like a harmless play-thing, we use it to suggest that people get what they deserve; that both horrible and good things are deserved in some sense. We warn against actions because of the karmic retribution that may come from them, and we tell the people we love that they’re surely “due” some good tidings after they’ve suffered some undeserved misfortune, because of how good they truly are.

From Flickr, by galo/*

And when a child has autism, we look for what must have caused this “misfortune,” what the mother or father must have done to call this down on themselves, they must have abused the child or injected it with toxins. We say things like “this happened for a reason,” in an effort to make some cosmic sense, to suggest all things are in balance and purposeful in some way. We listen to theories that autism is caused by “energetic legacies from unresolved family issues in previous generations.” And we think that other people getting autistic children is what they deserved for saying mean things to us in the past.

Or, we don’t.

When I was a youngster, I had a friend who lived by the saying “shit happens.” I thought the saying was pointless and was a way of giving up responsibility and control. It’s only years later that I realise the true worth of such a statement, ironically brought home to me by a very well researched and well thought-out essay by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg. In that essay Rachel puts a different light on disability than that we grow up with in today’s culture. She highlights that disability is not some evil thing that is done to someone, rather it is part of the natural human state. We experience disability as part of our very human lives. I think she will forgive me if I quote an entire paragraph for you, because she says it better than I could, and you’ll find the rest of her insights at the link provided above:

[A]s a number of disability studies scholars have noted, disability is a condition to which the human body, because of its fragility, inevitably tends. Tobin Siebers echoes Shakespeare and Watson in asserting that, if we recognize the fragility of human bodies, then disability becomes central to the human experience and not its exception. Because all bodies are vulnerable to injury, illness, and age, disability is “a defining characteristic of human beings” (Siebers 2011, 178). Disability, to turn conventional wisdom on its head, is neither exotic nor tragic, but utterly ordinary and common to all societies, in our era and in every other. As Linton notes, disabilities can be difficult, but they are “nevertheless part of the dailiness of life” (Linton 1998, 4).

So, if we can – and I think we must – accept that disability is part of the human experience, for better or worse, that some are born with it or come to it through accident or grow into it through old age, then trying to accord it some deeper role in the grand scheme of cosmic justice and karmic balance, strikes me as misguided and cruel. To do so, first almost always accepts that it is an abhorrent evil; something that was “caused” by a bad choice that we or our grandparents made, when sometimes it was just the roll of the genetic dice or a bunch of factors that converged outside of our control.

If we view disability (including autism) as something inherently negative that reflects both purposeful action and some sort of expression of justice, we turn other people into mere negative “consequences.” Even if you see autism as some sort of fantastic product that came about through the awesomeness of the parents, you are relegating the person with autism to being what someone else “deserves.”

Whatever the cause of autism, and disabilities, they do occur. We try to discover and address the causes where we can to alleviate severity of symptoms if possible, or we may find there was nothing that could have (or should have) been done to make things otherwise. The fact remains that these things happen sometimes and they don’t have to be turned into a tragedy or a piece of karma, to accord them deeper meaning or to make sense of them. The investigation of the origins and treatments for autism, do not require and are not advanced by buying into the idea of karma, despite what some (too many) clearly believe. Speaking of karma in relation to it, just turns people into deserved consequences of others’ actions, and either romaticises or demonises a medical condition.

So yeah, “shit happens.” Good shit, bad shit, things don’t always have some deeper meaning or (as yet, perhaps) discernible cause. Disabled people don’t exist just to inspire us (“inspiration porn,” another area that Rachel has a profound and fascinating understanding of), or for any other “purpose” to the rest of us so-called normal people. They are people, with their own desires and their own stories to tell, and those stories don’t have to whittled down to some moral that the rest of us can package up and carry around to post on our Facebook statuses when we’re in the mood.

If we let go of this idea of karma, of deeper meaning and purpose to disability and autism, we treat people with more respect as I see it. We also then take a step back from the sort of horrible, overly simplistic, and deeply misguided theories and expressions about autism that I gave at the start of this post. Whatever causes autism, the answer is not written in the heavens.

So next time someone suggests autism, or my son’s autism, or my experience with him, is some sort of cosmic karmic event, I will direct them to this post, and hopefully thereby bring them that much closer to a to a “divine” understanding, of why I wish people would just keep their karma to themself.

Amen.

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21 Responses to Keep Your Karma to Yourself (AKA, Disabled People Are Not Just Consequences).

  1. Angela says:

    Great post! I used to get “God must think you are such a special mother to have given you this child” My response “Actually I don’t think God is that much of an a***hole”. Shit just Happens!

  2. dq74 says:

    Great post! The whole karma element some people seem to need to apply to disability is close to playing the ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ games, in my mind. I guess, speaking only for myself, it is about acceptance. I have been through the ‘why us?’ phase and played the mind games with myself. I think that thinking in this way provides a safe and convenient barrier to thinking more deeply about what life with a disability is really like.

  3. Bonnie says:

    You’re wrong- this isn’t rough spun, it’s brilliant. If this is your version of rough spun, keep doing it! Sharing this on FB…

  4. Niksmom says:

    I agree with Bonnie! Jeez, your “rough spun” is amazing. I think, far too often, people conflate learning lessons about oneself and how one handles disability with there being a purpose TO the disability. I don’t know if that makes sense. For example: my son was born with multiple disablities but I don’t spend time wondering what I did “to deserve it this child.” However, I do often spend time reflecting on how my son– and the different life we live as a result of the challenges he has– has changed what I thought to be true about myself. I’ve found strengths I didn’t know I had, passion and determination I thought I’d long forgotten. But I don’t wonder what karmic lesson this is for me…or for him.

  5. Flannery says:

    Well said! And I love that you referenced Rachel. She’s a smart cookie.

  6. CSV says:

    Nice article!
    But did it really take you this long to realise I was not totally full of it after all. LOL
    I would like to point out that you have abbreviated my saying/sign. It actually said “Shit Happens, Constantly” and the philosophy was, “Shit Happens, Constantly. If you can fix it, fix it. If you can’t, let it be [the last bit was worded a little more bluntly than that, but well just leave it as it is for now, ;-) ]“.
    It was never about “giving up responsibility and control” (as you now realise), but exactly the opposite. It was about the realisation that there are things in the world you can’t control and that you are not responsible for. But if it you could change it, or fix it, you should try your best to do so. Do let the world stress you out, because “Murphy’s Law” can be a really bastard.
    Sometimes I wish I still had that sign. :-)

    • I do faintly remember the sign, but more so I remember how often you’d say “shit happens,” and how much that saying used to annoy me at the time! :D

      Thanks for taking the time to read my rambling and for commenting, much appreciated.

  7. xaraxia says:

    Nice post, and so true!

  8. Sunshine says:

    I LOVE the saying “shit happens.” Shit sure does happen! And I agree with your friend- the philosophy is cognitively powerful, if people would just realize that it’s wasted effort to fret about things outside of their control, they would REALLY have a lot more time to invest in things they CAN control.

    And inspiration porn really pisses me off, too. I’ve always been outraged by fricken accounts of special olympics players cooperating instead of competing, and posters that say crap like “The only real disability is a bad attitude.” What the crap is that?? But, yeah, now that I am a parent of an autistic child, people who KNOW me indulge in this Autism=Supernatural fantasy. I mean, that’s, like, by definition “dehumanizing,” guys. Angels didn’t send him here; he doesn’t have a special purpose; he’s not here to teach us a lesson… he’s not a tool, or a prop, in the lives of others. Come on now.

    People can be frustrating when they are dense. Idk why this is a controversial subject. Haha. Lovin it!

    • Love your comment Sunshine, you have a colourful way with words :)

    • Sooz says:

      I totally agree. I know some people find solace in explaining their autistic child as someone who was sent to teach them something about themselves, but I have to say the world just doesn’t revolve around me so much that it requires my daughter to be autistic so that I might ‘grow’. It’s not about me, other than maybe some of my genes may have contributed to who she is.

  9. Paige says:

    I LOVE THIS POST. I wish they would hurry up and invent transporter technology so I could zap on over to NZ and hug you and buy you a drink and then hug you again.

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