Disability, Karma and Meaning

Jim Colbert – USA

Theosophy DISABILITY 2 a Jim Colbert
The author Jim Colbert from Julian in California, is a lifelong student of Theosophy, renowned speaker, author of many articles and the “nestor” of International Theosophy Conferences

[The magazine Vidya , edited by associates of the United Lodge of Theosophists in Santa Barbara, USA, published the following article in its Spring 2017 issue; here is a slightly revised version.]

"The soul works in a constant cycle of renewal and progress towards something, so the trick is to find out what that something is in your current life. What is the goal your soul chose in this life? What does it have planned? Why did it choose this specific life and these circumstances? What does your soul want to learn? What is it contributing?"

From: The Secret Within: No-Nonsense Spirituality for the Curious Soul by the Dutch author Annemarie Postma.

Theosophy DISABILITY 2 b

The question of – why I am disabled and others are not – haunts many people who have been visited by disability. Why me? Is there a special meaning I need to understand? If so, what is it? Of course, these questions go far beyond disability. The feeling of, ‘I feel that I am supposed to do something with this life’, but ‘I am not sure what it is’ – is a lament of many.

Disability involves a degree of suffering. Certainly the 80% of the over six million disabled persons living in 3rd World Countries can be offered as evidence. Those living without money or a support system are often hungry and living in an endless cycle of deprivation. The plight of the disabled carries with it a heavy load. Society as a whole looks on disability with downcast eyes. Despite important federal legislation in the United States, the employment rate for the disabled is 41%. Most are supported through government funds. Given enough money and a supportive family, many disabled people can do well, adjusting to the disability and being independent. But, the majority of the disabled in most of the world live without funds or support. For those that do have support, it is usually friends or family, on whom a great toll is placed to provide care. Disability, then, not only involves millions of sufferers, but millions more who are their caregivers.

According to James Carlton in his book, Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability, Oppression and Empowermen:

Handicapped people remain outcasts around the world, living in shame and squalor among populations lacking not only in resources to help them but also in understanding. And with their numbers growing rapidly, their plight is getting worse... The normal perception is that nothing can be done for disabled children. This has to do with prejudice and old-fashion thinking that this punishment comes from God, some evil spirits or magic... We have a catastrophic human rights situation... They [disabled persons] are a group without power.”


Theosophy DISABILITY 3

Carlton further writes:

Millions of people with disabilities are starving, and many more are hungry. Underdevelopment has produced misery for hundreds of millions of people with disabilities. People with disabilities are the poorest, most isolated group in the poorest, most isolated places.”

The question “Why am I like what I am with no money or support,” is like, “how did I happen to carry this heavy load of karma?" Asking about meaning may seem like a luxury given the dearth of resources needed for survival. However, the quote by Nietzsche: “He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW,” pertains. One of the popularly cited reasons related to the “why” of disability is that it is “the luck of the draw.” It just happened. The idea of chance or coincidence would be something many consider. Just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In other words there is no meaning to the disability. In one sense this is the attitude taken by many of the disabled. At times a disabled person hears the words, “You are so courageous. You are remarkable for doing what you do, even though you are disabled. I could never do what you do with your handicap.” This falls flat on many who are disabled. To them, they are simply doing the best they can, given that they are disabled. They do not see that there is anything special about it. Just trying to adjust to what they had been given.

Theosophy DISABILITY 4 -the-meaning-of-human-existence-by-edward-o-wilson

The ‘chance’ theory is widespread in modern science. Take, for example, the statement of Edward O. Wilson – a Nobel prize winning scientist, who, in his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, wrote: "Humanity arose as an accident of evolution, a product of random mutation and natural selection. Our species was just one endpoint of many twists and turns in a single lineage of Old World primates (prosimians, monkeys, apes, humans) of which there are today several hundred other native species. In other words, there is no “meaning” to all of existence, let alone disability. It all ‘just happened.’

Another theory regarding the ‘why’ of disability is that there is something intrinsically wrong with a disabled person. They may have sinned or worse, have demons. God has given them a special test. They must go through what is given to them to prove to God that they are worthy. From Leviticus 21:17-23 there is this passage:

The Lord, speaking to Aaron, ‘No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles.’”

In the New Testament, Jesus heals the disabled but does so by chasing out the demons and/or forgiving them for their sins. This is assuming the disabled have sins or demons above or beyond those who do not.

Theosophy DISABILITY 5

Kim E. Nielson, in his work, A Disability History of the United States, has a powerful statement:

“…disability history has frequently been a story of stigma and of pride denied particularly when ableism defines disability and people with disabilities as defective and inadequate, and when disability is used to create and justify hierarchies. Ableist ideologies make pride difficult for disabled people. And as Clare has written, 'Pride is not an inessential thing. Without pride, disabled people are much more likely to accept unquestioningly the daily material condition of ableism: unemployment, poverty, segregated and substandard education, years spent locked up in nursing homes, violence perpetrated by caregivers, lack of access. Without pride, individual and collective resistance to oppression becomes nearly impossible.' But disability pride is not an easy thing to come by. Disability has been soaked in shame, dressed in silence, rooted in isolation.”

Forced sterilization (more than 65 thousand Americans by the 1960s (Kim E. Nielson) “and the most restrictive immigration laws in U.S. history (restricting the disabled) are a part of disability history.”

Theosophy DISABILITY 6
Calvin Coolidge, the 30
th President of the USA from 1923 - 1929

In his 1923 State of the Union Address, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed, “America must be kept American. For this purpose, it is necessary to continue a policy of restricted immigration.” Put more directly, this is to say that there is something defective about disabled people and they need to be sterilized in order for society not to have more.

A view that is an attempt to take into account the theory of reincarnation, but is nevertheless harsh of judgment regarding why some people are physically disabled, is that there is something the disabled did in a former life. However, in the sense that this is a smug blaming of the victim, how much different is the assessment that a person with disability is being punished for the sins of a previous lifetime, to the biblical explanation that they carried with them the evil of an original sin?

Rather than disability being seen as a punishment for an original sin or the deeds of a past life, would a more enlightened perspective – that does take into account the theory of reincarnation – be that disability is an opportunity for a balancing of karma? In Sunrise magazine (February/March 1982), Grace F. Knoche, a Theosophical writer, wrote an article called, “Is Life Fair?” She includes a passage from a letter she received from one of the readers who wrote:

Somewhere in one of the issues I picked up an idea that I don't particularly like. I may be misinterpreting, but I think the notion was that it is possible to view some congenital affliction as punishment for some transgression in an earlier (previous?) reincarnation. That proposition strikes me as highly unfair. The human being can't know anything about his previous life, and what good is punishment if the punished doesn't even know that he/she has, in some remote way, committed a crime?”

Here is Ms. Knoche's discerning and compassionate answer to her questioner:

“…first of all, I don't think anyone can say categorically that a child born with a congenital affliction is to pay for some misdeed in a previous life or lives. It may well be the case; but equally it may not be so at all. Is it not possible, for example, that a returning entity – for we are primarily spirit-souls – could be far enough advanced interiorly to choose the karma of severe malformation in order to gain a profounder sympathy with human suffering?”

Theosophy DISABILITY 7 Grace Knoche
Grace Knoche, leader of The Theosophical Society - Pasadena from 1971 - 2006

Ms. Knoche’s answer is perhaps a more philosophical view of why there are those who are disabled: the Higher Ego of the person at some level chooses to be disabled in his or her life. The challenge of having a life with a disability can be seen as a way of balancing some tendency in their previous life or lives. The Theosophical literature is suggestive in what is referred to as the Birth Vision, a review of what will be in the life about to begin. H. P. Blavatsky, in her book The Key to Theosophy, writes:

As the man at the moment of death has a retrospective insight into the life he has led, so, at the moment he is reborn on earth, the Ego, awaking from the state of Devachan, has a prospective vision of the life which awaits him, and realizes all the causes that have led to it. He realizes them and sees futurity, because it is between Devachan and re-birth that the Ego regains his full manasic consciousness, and rebecomes for a short time the god he was, before, in compliance with Karmic law, he first descended into matter and incarnated in the first man of flesh.”

According to Nielsen's Disability History previously quoted, most Native American tribes teach:

“… the spirit chooses the body it will occupy. Thus each person is responsible for who and what he is; he cannot blame others for the shortcomings of his body. Spirits choose their physical bodies in order to accomplish their purpose. If an individual does not meet his or her purpose, it is not the fault of the body – regardless of what that body can or cannot do. When a balanced spirit is what matters, varying bodies matter less.”

Annemarie Postma, in her book, The Secret Within: No Nonsense Spirituality for the Curious Soul, postulates that our soul makes the choice of disability:

“ … this has made it clear to me that a ‘damaged’ outer form is no punishment, but rather a privilege that allows you to live at a very conscious level and unapologetically make your contribution to the lives of others. It’s a lot like wearing a custom-fitted suit, made to fit perfectly so you can carry out the assignment your soul chose.”

C. Jinarajadasa, in an article on blindness (Theosophist magazine, 1941) wrote:

When... consciousness is limited by the Lords of Karma, we may be sure that it is never meant as punishment, but always as an experience from which the soul is to gain what it needs for its unfoldment.”

C. Jinarajadasa, International President of the Theosophical Society - Adyar from 1945 - 1953

Further he writes:

Why is the process of our expanding our consciousness, some are to be taught through blindness and not others, I do not understand. Yet one knows from first principles that there is not only meaning in it, but also an inspiring meaning. Some day we shall understand every detail of these Karmic processes. Till that day, let us add to our attitude of sympathy to those who suffer from blindness, an attitude of reverence as for those who are learning a high spiritual lesson which it is not for us to know.”

Mr. Jinarajadasa's statement on “reverence” for the disabled, deserves our deep consideration. Note he does not identify all karma as retributive and/or punishment.

There is an article in Vidya magazine, Summer 2016 providing us with an explanation of suffering, which to this writer, is very profound. It makes reference to a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Huston Smith (the late scholar of religions) of a Biblical passage from Isaiah showing how the Jewish people are chosen as the wandering tribe to take on the suffering of humanity. There is, as well, the suggestion that the Tibetan people are now fulfilling a similar destiny as they have lost their homeland. Could it be that disabled persons have assumed something of the same path? Perhaps, it was a choice, prior to birth, to assume some of the suffering.

Maybe, all who suffer – suffer for all. Can it be that when we experience suffering we have an opportunity for greater vision? Perhaps this is why in The Voice of the Silence there is the statement, “Woe to those who do not suffer.” Why is suffering integral to spiritual growth? It is the dharma of the personality to promote contentment, enjoyment, safety, and security. It is the dharma of the Soul to promote change, growth, and becoming – hence suffering. Each stage of growth to higher levels of consciousness means the pain of letting go of an earlier stage. The meaning of disability could be, at least for many, opportunity for growth.

We do not suggest the suffering that Victor Frankl described in his Man’s Search for Meaning (concentration camps, torture, and hunger) is the same as what the disabled suffer, but in some instances it is close. He writes of the heavy lifting that those who suffer take on: “These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.” Frankl continues:

Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.”

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Frankl further explains:

Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp's tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to “Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!” (How much suffering there is to get through!). Rilke spoke of 'getting through suffering as others would talk of getting through work.'“

Victor Frankl's quote from Dostoevsky, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings” – gets to the heart of the search for meaning that is buried within us all. Haunting is the question of why are we involved with the people we are: our family, our friends, career, business, etc. It gets to the question of consciousness and why we are here and how did it happen. Why do we choose the path we have chosen? Are the trials and sufferings of our life course related to our cosmic destiny?

It is particularly important to the disabled because somewhere along this question rings within.


Theosophy DISABILITY 10 o-old-man-wheelchair-facebook

Afterthought from the editor:

It takes a lot of confidence, and self-love and self-worth to realize that you are capable. And that you have every right to leave your lane, and to do things in the same way that other people do… 

Quote by Allan Hennessy


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