27 February 2011

Guest Post - It's Not Easy Being Green When You're in Pain

Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional blogger.  You can read her at Five Dollars and Some Common Sense. She also posts at the Christianity Today blog for women.

It's Not Easy Being Green When You're In Pain

I jumped on the “green” bandwagon long before it was trendy, thanks to a naturally guilty conscience and my living in left-leaning Washington, D.C. for most of my 20s, where my church and friends were ahead of the environmental consciousness curve. I started bringing my own reusable bags to the grocery store somewhere around 1992, for example, and endured about 15 years of cashiers’ and baggers’ perplexity and annoyance before reusable bags became something that grocery stores encourage and regular people (not just those wacky liberals) carry with them.

As climate-change concerns have grown along with my family, I have continued to make green choices. Compact fluorescent bulbs: Check. Participating in a community-supported agricultural farm program to get local produce: Check. Recycling everything possible: Check. Giving away old furniture, housewares, and clothes instead of trashing them: Check. Packing the kids’ lunches in reusable bags: Check. Composting and using organic gardening products: Check. Using the car less: Ch….wait…no check. Using a clothesline instead of the energy-sucking dryer: Yeah, um, no. Having a vegetable garden: Nope, not that either.  When I learned to drive at 16, the family car offered me greater independence than I’d ever had as a child who frequently used wheelchairs, crutches, and braces. A car continues to be a primary tool for me to do what needs doing despite my pain and limitations. Sure, an automobile is necessary for any suburban mother getting her kids to and from school, music lessons, and sports practices. But for me, the car’s necessity goes far beyond that.

No matter the weather or my physical state, I can get to and from wherever I need to go. If parking lots are dangerously icy, I’m carrying heavy loads, or my knee is acting up, I can use the closest handicapped parking space to my destination. This freedom of movement, especially in New England where ice and snow create significant falling risks, would be impossible if I embraced the admirably green, not to mention healthy, practice of walking whenever possible. I feel guilty for driving my kids the one-third mile trip to our school bus stop, but walking there and back can leave me with throbbing joints, and seriously eat into my allotment of physical energy for the day. For me, the automobile—that ultimate symbol of material indulgence and environmental degradation—is a mobility tool allowing me to participate fully in family and community life. In that way, it’s akin to a wheelchair or walker, except it uses way more gas.

For two years, we hung a clothesline in our backyard and I forced myself to use it in warmer weather. But the additional physical effort required—to lug the laundry basket up the steps from our basement to the yard, hang up the clothes, go back inside for the next load, repeat the steps, then go back out several hours later to bring the dry clothes inside—was simply too much. Energy conservation is perhaps the most important coping skill for living with chronic pain and disability—learning to pace yourself so you don’t blow an entire day’s worth of physical effort before it’s even lunchtime, and perhaps end up hurting more. I eventually decided that, while the energy used by my dryer is bad for the environment, the physical energy it allows me to conserve is good for me and my family. The clothesline came down.

These are just two examples of how technology, which I recognize as both a blessing and a bane for our world, has helped me care for a family, a household, and myself within the limits imposed by chronic pain and disability.  Here’s the hard part, though. For me, being green has always been linked with being faithful. Caring for the earth is not just about ensuring that there are enough resources for the planet’s inhabitants, human and otherwise, or averting climate-change catastrophe. It is about caring for God’s gifts to us—this miraculous, beautiful earth and the creatures that dwell in it.

So when I embrace fossil-fuel guzzling, climate-changing technologies like my minivan, clothes dryer, and tomatoes trucked in from Florida instead of grown in my backyard, I feel that I’m disappointing God. Looking at the big picture, I feel that I’m, well, sinning, that I’m missing the mark that God wants us to aim toward. Looking at the small picture, though, which is my daily life in this place, with this husband and these children, with this broken, scarred, pained body, I know I’m simply doing the best I can with what I have.

This is what living with chronic pain has taught me: I am broken, physically and in lots of other ways. I miss the mark. I cannot, simply cannot, be and do all that I should. I absolutely need God’s grace, forgiveness, and neverending love (which, as a Christian, I see as most real and accessible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ). I need to accept that there are things—good, worthy, important things—that I simply cannot do. And in spite of that, I am still loved, accepted as I am, and called to use my imperfect
resources as best I can.

That’s true for all of us, really. We’re all unable to be and do all that we should. We all leave our mark on this world, and not always a pretty one. This truth is just more obvious when our failures are failures of body rather than failures of will. Bodies are so physical, so tangible, so impossible to ignore. I’ve overcome a lot in my life, and done many things in spite of my disability—excelled in school, climbed mountains, borne three children.

But it’s the limitations I can’t overcome that have taught me the most about grace.

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