There’s a funky new spiritual discipline that I need to pay more attention to. It’s called ‘not reading stuff on the internet that will make steam blow out your ears’. The necessity for this sort of self-protection came home to me when I stumbled across some online ‘banter’ targeting “that anorexic bitch”. Either, mental health treatment has improved astronomically and now one solitary female has the monopoly on eating disorders, or these numerous social commentators would rather dehumanise people to the point that they are just their most notable trial. These comments always seem to imply that the girl in question deserves calling out because she sees her mental illness as a cause of aesthetic or moral superiority. Calling her an “anorexic bitch” thus serves to dismantle the pedestal she so presumptuously put herself upon. But no one I have ever met who has suffered from anorexia has ever thought of themselves like that. Having an eating disorder is to feel irreparably isolated from ‘normality’. I, for one, never felt like I was the pinnacle of humanity: I felt barely human. Calling someone an “anorexic bitch” isn’t wit- it’s the realisation of someone’s worst nightmare. To be fully taken over by a mental illness until you can’t remember who you were apart from appears horrifically real when you are in its grips.
But it isn’t real.
Our commodity-obsessed culture likes labels. When everything is ripe for objectification and possession, knowing what you are is more important than the who. Labels make finding people who will tell us what we want to hear far easier. You never have to waste time in real life conversation before you can categorise everyone you meet into the in-crowd or the out-crowd. And it’s not just efficiency that labels appeal to: it’s our need for safety too. You are far less likely to disappoint and reject me, the reasoning seems to go, if we share the same label. But the fact that the labels we use seem to be getting ever more specific suggests that this approach falls short. The brokenness of our world is evident in every relationship – including how we relate to ourselves. Not even our inner monologue can agree on who we are, or want to be. And whatever label we stick on ourselves, we are always limiting the fullness of our humanity. I am more than my psychological state, my place on the political spectrum, my sexuality, my career, my hair colour, my star sign, my results in a ‘what kind of girlfriend/ learner/ kisser/ root vegetable/ Disney character are you?’ quiz on Buzzfeed.
John 5:1-8: “Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie – the blind, the lame, the paralysed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’ ‘Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’ At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.”
When Jesus asks the man at the pool of Bethesda if he wants to be made well, he fudges an answer. Maybe because, like us, he liked the safety of the label. He’d been by that pool for 38 years- he was that guy. He had an identity; he had a reputation. If Jesus made him well, who would he be?
Jesus healed him anyway, without being asked, because He knew there was safety in stepping outside his comfort-zone. And the same goes for us: in letting Jesus make us whole and having His Spirit of truth dwell within us, we can stretch out into our truer, fuller selves. We can be free from frittering away energy on inner turmoil, and self-condemnation. We can be free to know ourselves as part of God’s masterpiece, utterly safe in letting God love us, and loving Him in return.