All in the Family: If You Have a Disability, is Family Love–or Love of Any Kind–an Obligation?

Hello, readers,

I hope everyone had a marvelous Valentine’s Day weekend. If that included, as it did for me, waiting 90 minutes or more to get into a decent restaurant, you have my sympathy. In all seriousness, though, there is indeed something unique and fun about Valentine’s Day, whether you have a “Valentine” or not. For instance, I’m still single, but my family has never failed to make me feel loved on V-Day. I usually get presented with chocolates, an angel for my collection, a gift card, or some other small present. In recent years, my parents have also gotten me flowers, such as carnations, daisies, or pink roses. As one of my friends once told me, having a family who loves you truly is a blessing–disability or not.

Of course, as you all know by now, disability can come with a set of insecurities. Among these is an insecurity I face down every V-Day: what if my family are the only ones who ever truly cherish me? Now, one, I know that’s already not true because I have friends who cherish me, even if I don’t see them every day. Two, some people would do anything to have what I do, and it’s more than others have. I get that. So I decided it was time to throw that insecurity out the window–and keep throwing it out every time it reared its ugly, non-loving head. Yet, it did make me think of an idea for this blog.

What idea is that? Let me explain. I believe there is an insidious lie circulating through society that if you have a disability, your family will in fact be the only ones who love or even tolerate you. Furthermore, the lie goes on to say that they are obligated to love you. Some disability humorists–that is, people who themselves have disabilities and are trying unsuccessfully to be funny–even make a joke out of this. I recently saw a version of this on a website I will not name: “Don’t expect to find love or be able to date. You’re breathing–that’s enough. Your family already loves you.” (My paraphrase).

Disgusting, isn’t it?

Yes, it is. Not only is it disgusting for PWDs to posit this about themselves, as we have discussed (check the December 2011 archives for my post on “disability humor”), it’s disgusting to place PWDs and their families in this box, this position. As if, families never wanted children with disabilities, no matter what they say otherwise, and when those children grow up, they can only hope to be burdens.

People who perpetuate this horrible idea take it even further, by assuming that if, by some miracle, a PWD does find love outside the family–of any kind (more on that in a second)–it, too, will be a love of obligation. Let’s take a look at what I mean, using the Greek expressions of love. (Come on, I’m a nerd. You didn’t think I could write a love-centered post without exploring the word’s origins, did you)? šŸ˜‰

Eros. In Greek, this is romantic/sexual love, the kind you have with a partner to whom you have fully devoted yourself, at least in part because they are physically attractive to you, but also because they are (hopefully) intellectually and spiritually attractive. PWDs have the right to seek this love, and many find it. Joni Eareckson Tada, David Ring, Rob Oliver, Tiffiny Carlson, and countless others have (for more on Carlson and Oliver, check their stories on dating with disabilities, which appeared in Happen magazine and are now online). That love, as we have discussed, can be as real as any other romantic/sexual relationship. But some people, who believe loving PWDs is an obligation, twist it around, claiming that a “lover” of a PWD will only ever be a “caregiver.” Can I go on record as saying that’s a load of rotten feta? In fact, as Carlson and Oliver put it, it is inadvisable for a PWD to look for someone to date just so that person can care for him or her. It’s also unfair for a temporarily able-bodied person to seek a PWD so he or she can play caregiver. Eros may mean “romantic/sexual love,” but it should also mean “equal love.”

Philia/Philio (seen it spelled both ways). In Greek, this is “family love” or “friendship love.” It is, I can tell you from experience, some of the strongest love in existence. And one need not be part of your blood family to get philia from you. For example, I have a great deal of filial (philia) love for the women with whom I attend Bible study. They are my sisters. The older women, I regularly and proudly call my “aunties.” I have the same family love for men such as my pastor, the male professors who mentored me (and the females, too), and other men for whom I have zip romantic feelings. Of course, philia love can be twisted, too. People might say, “Of course they have to love you. You wouldn’t know love otherwise, and when they’re gone, you never will.” Some families, for whatever reason, even act as if loving the PWD in their lives is an obligation, whether that stems from abuse, neglect, a feeling of helplessness, or something else.

Rotten feta alert! It is not a burden or obligation for family to love a PWD–and that person can, yes, have true friends who also choose to love him or her. In fact, this love is often quite rewarding for both sides.

Agape (love for everyone, the love of Christ/God). Unfortunately, I think this third love type is the one most vulnerable to the obligation label. As in, “Of course God has to love that poor little disabled person,” or, “Tell yourself God loves you if it makes you feel better.” Or even, “God loves you, and that’s enough.” (On a spiritual, metaphysical, transcendent level, maybe–but God also said it was not good for man or woman to be alone, so there goes your excuse for denying PWDs human relationships). I’m not going to say much here because I have plans for other posts about the community of PWDs’ relationship to God. But I will say this: God isn’t obligated to love anyone or anything. If He were, we’d have all been obliterated centuries ago. PWDs are included in “anyone,” just as they should always be. Chew on that.

In short, true love is not an obligation. Nor is it “natural” for anyone, PWD or not, to give it (despite the stereotype that PWDs are perpetual bastions of love and kindness). Love must be learned, and freely given, on both sides. So please indulge. Give and receive some today, no obligation required.


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