By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Sunlight slanting through my window touches the leaves of my plants. The light is luminous and magical, filling the room with warmth and promise. But notwithstanding the beauty of the moment, I am filled with longing — a longing to dance and run, to raise my arms in salutation to the sun, to wade breathlessly in ice-cold mountain streams, to feel the earth beneath me.
Instead I live in this one room. It is here I eat and sleep, here I teach, here I learn about love. It is here, from my bed, I reach out to the world; here I dream of a healthy body, the heavy, solid presence of strength. It is here I awaken each morning to a life very different from the one of my dreams.
My favorite cat slams against the door in an effort to rouse me to let him in. This is our ritual: he jumps onto the screen and careens like a wild man into the door, and I lie still and listen. The walk to the door looks very long. I lie quietly, waiting for the determination to rise. In the corner stands my walking stick, symbol of my “different” life. I am not sure if it is friend or foe.
I have a disabling disease. Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a genetic disease affecting the immune system, causing it to attack the body as if it were an intruder. My father had this disease before me. Like me, he was forced to grapple with a life of disability and intractable pain. Although focused in the spine, AS affects the body as a whole, causing inflammation, fusion of the joints and spine, and inflammatory bowel disease. For me this has meant stays in the hospital and high doses of steroids to stop the bleeding. It has also meant a life of restriction and pain.
Sitting has become very difficult. Each day, I can manage about three hours in a chair. Consequently, “up time” is of great value. It is cherished, planned for, and jealously guarded. If people call when I’m sitting up, I ask them to call back later. Sitting is too important to be interrupted.
Essentially bedridden for three years, I have invested a great deal of energy in teaching my body to move again. I have worked for a year to be able to stand outside for ten minutes at a time beneath the trees. I live in a town full of hills and old Victorian houses. Outside my door, on one of the few flat spots in town, I practice walking. Under a stately oak tree that has become my friend, I struggle with the limitations of this body. At times, when I cannot walk, I stand in silence. Never before, when my body was well and I rushed to and fro in the world, did I see the beauty of the sky in such bold relief. I didn’t understand the whisper of wind against my cheek. Nor did I realize the nourishment I received from the world of nature — not until it was denied me.
When I go outside each day, my cats rush to meet me; they know this is a special event. My time with the sky has been dearly earned, a shimmering victory that disappears like a mirage when held up against the easy movement of someone else’s life.
For ten years I have worked to heal myself. I have eaten the right foods. I have cleansed my body and fasted with vigor and conviction. I have gone to healers. I have had the laying-on-of-hands. I have visualized, relaxed, and prayed. I have gone to pain clinics. I have analyzed my childhood and worked with my dreams.
I am deeply engaged in my life, but I am not healed. My mobility remains impaired. The pain remains constant. All my imagery and prayer has not been able to change anything.
One of the hardest parts of this experience has been my constant struggle with the philosophy that we create everything in our lives. It follows, then, since I have not healed, that I have somehow missed the right thinking or the right beliefs. In other words, I have failed. This philosophy has been deeply hurtful. It has caused my friends to forego their humanity for the sake of an idea. It has brought me to despair. But it has also brought me healing — by forcing me, again and again, to turn to God, looking for answers to my failure. In this anguished turning I have come to understand another truth: that the healing of the heart is more important than the healing of the body. It is the truth that says some lives are a greater message unhealed.
In the silence of this room, I have begun to understand the power of an unhealed life.
Even here, I am not alone. This silence is alive with the unfolding of other lives and with the turning and movement of the Earth. I began to sense my connection to the world’s pain and my part in healing it. I realized that my transformation of pain into love was an act of service for humankind. By embracing my existence, I could bring courage to others to face their own pain and to acknowledge what it had to teach them.
In the pain of an unhealed life is the pain of the world’s heart made manifest. I am sure our individual thoughts and needs affect our reality, but I am equally sure there is a larger picture. We are connected, to each other and to the world. An unhealed life is a statement of our need to work together to heal the whole. It is an opportunity to refrain from turning away, separating our reality from the reality of others.
According to the Gaia theory, our Earth is a living being, of which we are a part. Many people in many cultures believe this is true; they have felt the Earth and know their lives are intimately connected to it. How then can anyone say, “I am well, and you are sick, and therefore your illness is not my problem”? If we are, as the theory goes, the consciousness or nerve cells of the Earth, how can any one person’s struggle not affect everyone? And if the Earth is a living being that is hurting and polluted, would its nerve cells not be affected?
Is it possible that our illnesses and disabilities are not always the result of our beliefs or subconscious programming? Is it possible that sick or disabled people are like random nerve cells affected by the being of which they are a part? If this is true, then people who are not well should be given attention, respect, and support, for they are taking on a share of the world’s distress.
I believe in personal responsibility. I believe we must examine ourselves deeply and constantly, and increase our ability to see causes and effects. But I also believe that we must expand our vision beyond our self-centeredness. Perhaps, when one’s back is hurting, it is not that one lacks support or cannot hold oneself up or whatever the current reasoning is. Perhaps it is the Earth whose back is hurting. Perhaps it can no longer hold us up. We may be the symptoms of its dis-ease. We may be part of the working out of a design greater than our individual destinies.
The unhealed person calls attention to a need for healing and awareness. To disregard his or her reality is to disregard our connectedness.
The unhealed life is also a reminder of the pain and fears within each of us. It is a gift that can help those who are well to look at the scared and uneasy places within themselves, to re-evaluate the old programming against people who are “different,” and to address the fear that whispers, “What if this happened to me?” Unexamined, these hidden reactions separate us from others unlike ourselves, from the conscious acceptance of the world as whole, and from our own existence.
There are other gifts of an unhealed life, other messages. Many people have told me that seeing how I live has given them courage to take the next step in their own lives, to face the hard places. I believe this is true — that the grace with which I embrace what I have chosen, or been given, can have meaning for others. I believe the unhealed life is a message that says, “Even here, love can grow.”
I have been with those who have healed, and I have been with those who have not. There is no less beauty in the lives of those who have not healed. There is mystery; there are unanswered questions.
Those who have healed have their vision to impart. They have an offering that shines, radiant with possibilities. But often that dream is too far away to grasp. It is too far away from the next step that must be taken. The unhealed life is a bridge between terror and perfection. It is tangible because it is close enough to everyone’s pain. It is hope and courage held out to everyone; it is the triumph of the human spirit. It acknowledges the uncertainty; it says there is love in it all.
I once had a spiritual teacher who drove non-stop halfway across the country to sleep one night in a motel room over a fault line where earthquake activity had been recorded. When I asked her why, she said she went to help hold the Earth together. She said it was very painful physically, but it made her happy in her heart. I believe that those who are unhealed have chosen to take on, in their own way, the pain of the Earth — and, through the courage of their lives, to transform it.
The idea that we are responsible for everything in our lives denies too many possibilities. Perhaps those who have not healed are responsible in a larger way, answering to a wider vision or an unnamed understanding. Reality may be bigger than we think. Perhaps we don’t choose our reality as much as we would like to believe. Perhaps we choose it before we are born, when we can see clearly the needs of the world and the part we have to play.
Can we live with the mystery? Can we embrace the unanswered? Can we refrain from labeling others to maintain our own sense of safety? There are levels of our own being we have not even learned to touch, a wholeness we are barely able to glimpse.
To be willing to hear the whisperings of a different truth, in the lives of those who have not “succeeded” in healing themselves, is to take a step toward healing the world. Out of our willingness to live with this mystery, a new understanding can evolve. The message of the unhealed life is that it takes all of us, all of our caring, to bring this about.