The glory of weakness
A documentary on Michael J. Fox reminds Christians of something truly important
This column is of a more personal nature. It comes after watching the new Apple TV documentary Still on the life of Michael J. Fox. If you’re my age (late 30s), Michael J. Fox was a household name alongside Michael Jordan. Even now, when Back to the Future comes on, I am overwhelmingly tempted to watch it. It’s a staple of my childhood.
If Michael J. Fox is synonymous with 1980s and 1990s cinematic blockbusters, he’s also now synonymous with being the public face for Parkinson’s disease. In the documentary, which pulls at the heartstrings all throughout (minus the expletives), you see a Michael J. Fox in his 60s and markedly regressing in his physical abilities. On screen, he’s constantly racked by involuntary and spasmodic shaking. His speech is strained. You see him work with a physical therapist to help maintain whatever strength he has left. In the beginning of the documentary, Fox takes a very hard fall on the streets of New York. Michael J. Fox is physically decaying before our eyes. But he is surrounded by people who love him and care for him. There is something about the weakness of humanity that makes us so human.
In an odd way, I can relate to Michael J. Fox.
My teens were defined by a traumatic skiing accident in April 2001. I was hospitalized for 44 days, 27 of which were spent in intensive care and two weeks of which were in an induced coma. I have a tracheotomy scar. I had to learn to walk again. In what were supposed to be the glorious years of one’s youth, I dealt with severe emotional swings due to a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. I went from being a cross country star hopefully bound for college competition to being unable to run at all.
Growing up in small-town America, I became the town celebrity for having survived a traumatic accident. I resented sympathy, despite the earnestness and love that people wanted to show me. Today, most don’t know about this part of my life. Admittedly, my reluctance to bring the topic up or to change the subject when it does, probably stems from unprocessed grief.
But if you see me without my shoes on (which is virtually never), I walk with a limp due to some nerve damage and foot problems that arose out of my accident. After repeated emergency surgeries, I have an abdominal condition that causes protruding disfigurement in the abdomen. But time has gone on. After an important surgery in 2014, I was able to take up long-distance running again, which I love.
Here’s the point of this column: Our world celebrates triumph and strength. It shuns weaknesses, vulnerability, and frailness. But the Michael J. Fox story and my own story can testify to something else. Weakness, vulnerability, and frailness are inevitable elements of being truly human. In light of the Christian worldview, they are even redeemable qualities. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
If you’ve suffered, you know how right Lewis was and is.
The Michael J. Fox documentary is good, if only because it strikes upon what I've heard moral theologians refer to as the “openness to the unbidden,” the idea that part of being human is understanding that not everything that makes us human is chosen, voluntary, or under our control. It partly explains why individuals who have a physical infirmity tend to demonstrate an authenticity, meekness, and humility that those with full physical vigor believe would be weaknesses—but aren’t weaknesses at all, in fact. Limitations are capacities to see how frailty and dependence are deeply embodied aspects of human personhood.
Fox must rely on his family. At 16, I learned the same fact. In the present tense, these are hard lessons to process. In retrospect, I look back at my infirmity as a moment where my weakness evoked love from others. I had my sense of immortality that we associate with youthfulness taken from me early. I saw humanity at its best in response to my broken human body. My mom selflessly cared for me and did everything in her power to help me regain weight. She spent hours driving me to appointments and she prayed her heart out for my recovery. My girlfriend, instead of spending the summer jaunting around town with her friends, came to my home each day and just watched movies so that I would have a friend with me as I recovered. It’s a good thing I married that girl.
None of this, of course, is foreign to Christianity. Christianity gives us the interpretive grid to experience the onset of age and the frailties of the human experience. It allows us to age gracefully even while accepting the inevitability of our looming dependence. Ours is a narrative in which the Savior suffers and dies. The whole of the Apostle Paul’s ministry is one defined by suffering and despair. Even then, Paul insists that hardship produces refined faith. But then comes the promise of resurrection.
Michael J. Fox is not a Christian, to my knowledge. But if he by chance reads this, let me say to him: Mr. Fox, your weakness does not have to be the end of your story. There is a Savior, Jesus Christ, who promises to raise all who believe in him, in glory. Our bodies, as the Apostle Paul says, are “sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:43). That can be true for you, too.
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These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.