The positivity myth: a belated response to 60 minutes and the Curtis Landers story.

Curtis Landers

60 minutes report: http://video.au.msn.com/watch/video/curtis-landers/xwf16yz?from

I hate watching television reports on spinal cord injury, which normally to follow a predictable two-part pattern. Part one provides pictures of neck braces, helicopters, ventilation machines, and shocked families, all of which is a visceral reminder of the horror of my own injury, bringing back memories I’d rather forget. Part two describes a person’s inspirational recovery, in which she or he refuses to give in to disability, and so reaps the rewards of determination – eventually stepping out of his or her wheelchair.

Don’t misunderstand me. I love to see people who incur a spinal cord injury recover. I don’t feel bitter or jealous and I am genuinely happy for any and all recovery. My best friend in hospital, Sid, began as a quadriplegic and now walks. I recently had the joy of hearing him tell of his return to skiing on the snowfields where he had his accident. Recovery from SCI is something to be celebrated.

But – and this is my point – many people don’t recover. And they aren’t any less determined, any less (or more) inspirational, any less hard-working, any less newsworthy. Yet time and again media reporting celebrates those who recover and ignores those who don’t (or worse, implicitly demeans them), as though their permanent struggles (and achievements) with disability are too embarrassing to talk about.

So I came to the Peter Overton’s 60 minutes report on Curtis Landers with some reluctance [which is why this blog post is a week out of date]. I have to say that I was mostly pleasantly surprised. Curtis is a 15-year-old boy who injured his third and fourth cervical vertebrae while playing rugby league; an injury that would ordinarily render him a permanent quadriplegic. While at the time the story was aired it was still too early to know the full extent of his recovery, what the program was able to show was his remarkable improvement. Curtis has been able to regain function in his arms, fingers, and legs, and when discharged from the hospital, triumphantly left his wheelchair behind. The program rightly celebrated the rapidity and extent of Curtis’ recovery. It also applauded the achievements of his first aid worker, whose ministrations on the football field immediately following the injury minimised the damage to the spinal cord.

This good reporting notwithstanding, 60 minutes couldn’t help but perpetuate the positivity myth. Speaking about Curtis’ recovery, Overton noted that “in his mind, it was never a matter of if, but when,” and followed up with the standard question “was there ever a moment, in all honesty, when you thought ‘I will never walk again?’” Curtis gave the expected response, although with some reluctance “not really, I was planning to play [football] this season again, so walking wasn’t a worry.” This exchange was followed with video of Curtis at work in the gym, taking tentative steps, while John Newman & Alex Clare’s inspirational “Not Giving in” played in the background. And surprise surprise, the report ended with Curtis stepping out of his wheelchair as he left the hospital.

Let me be clear. I have no issue with Curtis; he answered the question honestly, and his positive attitude toward his circumstances is commendable. His recovery is wonderful news, and it should make headlines. What I take issue with is the question Overton asks, which is deliberately framed to imply that believing in something with sufficient faith, and never giving in, will bring it to pass. The reality, though, is that in the early stages of rehabilitation, many people with an SCI hold on to the belief that they will recover, but ultimately have to come to terms with permanent disability.

The fact is that belief has very little to do with recovery from an SCI. When a person incurs a spinal cord injury, the long-term damage to the neurological system is indeterminate, and it takes months and years to find out the extent of the damage caused by the initial trauma. In Curtis’ case, he regained movement in his arms and legs within a week of his accident, and was walking within months. This means that his spinal cord had incurred less damage than his doctor [Jonathan Ball**] initially thought when he apparently suggested to Curtis’ parents that their son would never walk again. To do Overton justice, his 60 minutes report made this clear, before undoing its good work by defaulting to the positive thinking myth. Curtis’ wonderful recovery had nothing to do with his expectation, faith, or positivity, and nor was it a product of his “defying his doctors.” These attitudes might well have helped him deal with the emotional trauma of the injury. But mostly, he was lucky (blessed, if you prefer). If the damage to his neurological system had been more severe, no amount of positive thinking would have kept him out of a wheelchair.

The positive thinking myth has obvious correlations with the naïveté of Christian prosperity/faith healing. Both place too much emphasis on individual faith. Both focus on those who experience healing, ignoring and implicitly denigrating those who don’t. And both fail to recognise that suffering and disability are an inevitable fact of human life, not something that can be believed away.

I hope that 60 minutes and Peter Overton continue to tell the stories of people with a spinal cord injury. There is too much horror in the media, and we do need the encouragement of stories such as that of Curtis Landers. But is it too much to ask that these good news stories be framed more carefully, perhaps by referencing accounts of those who don’t regain any neurological function, who never get out of their wheelchair and walk again, but who nevertheless manage to make a go of life with a disability?

 

** A comment on Dr Jonathan Ball. I was especially disappointed by Doctor Ball’s comments on the program. He observed of Curtis’ recovery that, “It is astonishing. It is inspirational. Across all neurological operations there are a handful of patients that you remember, who are the people who keep you doing what you do. And Curtis is in the handful of patients who are the inspiration to keep me doing what I do.” This may be true, and neurosurgery may well be a largely impersonal discipline – and no doubt Curtis is a memorable young man. But whether he intended it or not, what Dr Ball implied was that none of the other patients that have been in his care are worth remembering (or even worth operating on). I, for one, am glad I had more compassionate doctors supervising my recovery.

15 thoughts on “The positivity myth: a belated response to 60 minutes and the Curtis Landers story.

  1. Great blog Shane. I too roll my eyes when 60mins or other shows inevitably do the feel good story about a child with CP that walks because of the determination of the parents. Helena and I sit there and watch wishing the problem could be solved with determination – how easy would these real problems be if it was simply determination that was required to solve health issues? Love your words – thanks for continually pastoring by being honest and teaching that the lives we live, although difficult, are entirely normal. Cheers. Jay

  2. It’s the human condition /our default mode, we are uncomfortable unless we think our efforts will get us what we want and great effort will set us above others and make us special. It’s more subtle if it’s about ‘pressing in to God’ and complicated by a belief in the supernatural but still the same need to have some handle on things, some control. You know Shane I talked about that program with my husband, and it was just the two of us. Here you are explaining it so carefully wisely and well, and people to hear you. So many more opportunities to humbly embrace life’s mysteries.

  3. You are correct in what you say Shane. Unfortunately the press and the media make a big story of those patients with spinal cord injury who apparently do very well (leave the wheelchair behind),with great emphasis laid on the person’s strength of character and unflinching belief they will get better-the underlying supposition being that any one with the right strength of character and belief can get better too. This as you say is not the case- it is the anatomical lesion ot the S,C, severance that determines the outcome,that’s not to imply that positive thought and firm belief don’t matter -of course they do in shaping the overall happiness and character
    The quiet achievers story is just as significant and important to himself and his amily and friends but as with à lot of media news it is the story with the greatest impact, the most outlandish and hard to believe that gets printed.
    Keep up the good work.Shane.j

  4. Hey Shane,

    I’m one of your previous students. I can completely see where you are coming from and I have two thoughts. Firstly I agree it’s not the persons fault if they do not receive full healing, it says in the gospels, that it was “neither the man nor his parents who sinned” when Jesus was questioned about a man being born blind. There is the account though of the man by the pool that didn’t do everything to receive healing. Other times it seems it was the anointing of the person praying, for example Jesus or the disciples.

    I too have recently been diagnosed with an incurable illness. It’s not comparative to yours because mine is a mental illness. I felt like if I had enough faith it would surely go away. I still feel full of faith and I will keep believing for healing but I also understand the reality of my situation.

    I personally feel it a lot,to think myself better because of the pressure around me. People can’t see that my brain transmitters are receiving a host of bizarre communications from both the drugs and illness, so they don’t get it. It gave me, a positive girl, chemical depression!

    My second thought though is that being positive surely is a good thing, if and whenever possible in life. But that positivity will not nessisarily heal you in an instant.

    Ultimately his kingdom come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Should be our prayer…yet knowing some people only see their full healing in heaven.

    1. dear Jennifer, thanks his contribution to the discussion. Your own situation is especially important, because depression is one of those topics that too often is given shallow response – as though positivity is the answer when, as you note, positivity is precisely the problem of mental illness. I do hope and pray that you do experience recovery, or at the least find ways to appropriately manage your illness – and that you receive the support you need, Shane

  5. Shane, as always you have given us much to ponder on this issue. I must be honest, because I haven’t personally dealt with a spinal issue, I hadn’t really thought about most of those points. But I have certainly talked through the issue of healing with many people over the years with a range of physical and mental conditions (some of whom you know too, of course), and the issue of “if you have faith, then God MUST…” is a real problem in parts of the church.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, and thanks as always for your raw honesty. You’re a good bloke!!

    Take care mate.

    Dave

  6. Hi Shane,
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a story aired of someone who did not recover full function and had to do the even harder yards of emotional and spiritual recovery from the betrayal factor- how you come to terms with yourself and the meant-to-be-good God who has allowed you to remain disabled, weak and vulnerable.
    My friend Wayne has been living with an inoperable but slow growing brain tumour for the past eight years. He was given a life expectancy on 10-15 years.
    His testimony of God’s goodness to him has inspired me- he says that where before he was proud in his abilities, now, in his dependence, he knows that God is much freer to reign in his life and to use in him in spirit filled ways. Wayne’s speech, movement, emotions and response to stimuli in his environment have been affected. This has been hard for him to accept, as having such a change of personality yet while retaining much if his intellect is particularly hard to cope with. Sudden movements, noises often cause him to make involuntary movements and exclamations. He is easily irritated, unsure of himself and emotional. Yet despite this, he prays for people and when God’s Spirit flows through him, his speech becomes fluent and articulate- it’s amazing to see. He thanks God for the tumour, because of the humility it has produced in him and the way in which God is using him more now than ever before.
    To make matters even more complex, last year, several people prophesied over Wayne that, after all this time of unanswered prayer for healing, that God wanted to heal him. I had also received this in my own prayer time but decided not to burden Wayne with it. However he asked me to pray for him and I did. We did not proclaim his healing, we simply asked God for it.
    Four months later, he went for his usual check up with the neuro surgeon, who looked at his scan and asked him which surgeon had removed his tumour. The tumour was completely gone , and the scar tissue from radiotherapy was all that was left to see.
    Wayne’s reaction was not what most people expected. He really struggled that God had healed him because he was so ready to go to be with the Lord, that hope was so tangible to him, that he was upset to have his life prolonged. In addition, though the tumour and it’s potential further damage and ultimate death was removed, all the damage to that point remained- he continues to have speech, balance and emotional effects in his life. It took Wayne some months to get used to his new reality and to be able to praise God for the miracle of his healing and for his continuing disability.
    He is a remarkable person and a great friend, and together we have a good God who’s ways are often beyond our understanding.

  7. Hello Curtis
    I am a nurse and I worked on a neuro-surgical unit in a hospital in the US for several years. I know my response here is a couple years after the fact, but I was moved to respond to you. I took care of many freshly injured SCI patients, and I think you are right. The number of people who recover and walk again are far fewer than those who remain permanently paralyzed. They work their asses off to regain as much as they can, but in the end, they will always be paralyzed, because the level of severity of the damage done to their spinal cord was extreme, complete, and unrecoverable. The true story of courage, fight, and resilience is to watch the people who do not recover as they have to learn an entirely new way to live. Many of them have to move from their homes because they need purpose built accommodations with wide doors, open hallways, low counters, special appliances, open showers, hoyer lifts, and many other adapted products. Many have to go through months or years of trying to get approval for funding to pay for these things. And the whole time they still have their lives to live. The majority of SCI’s happen to men under the age of 30. These young men where in high school, college, or had just started families, and they still have obligations, dreams, and goals. These young men (and of course the few women), have always inspired me. Its one thing to fall down go boom and get an ouchie, spend some time in rehab, and then go home and be fine, but to never walk again is just severe. You find out who your real friends are, and you learn to love your family in a totally different way. You inspire me.

  8. Dear Shane, I so appreciate your blog. My wife and I became aware of it last year (she is doing studies in special ed). Right now, we have a family member who acquired the same injury as yours a few weeks ago (C5 incomplete). Some of the family are holding onto a promise of healing — “Such-and-such-a-friend had positive feelings about this from the Spirit when they prayed in tongues” etc. “He is going to walk again. God will heal him.” When asked, “But what if God doesn’t heal him?” they have no response except, “Of course God will!” When pushed on the question last week, one of them admitted the obvious fact: if he isn’t healed, then is God even real? So we are watching this ‘vending machine’ view of God … and the young man who was paralysed became a believer within a few days of his injury. So he is being urged to embrace the same. This is tough to watch. I get why they want to believe this, but find it hard to pray that way myself. I think the greater miracle is already afoot, and it is in the transformation of this young man’s character — he is full of light and life as he lies in that hospital bed. What is hard (I believe) is that the absolute (or perhaps ‘desperate’) belief in healing is stopping them moving on, stopping them thinking long-term — in other words, the belief in a ‘divine guarantee’ is framing their current responses to the circumstance with hope, but also with a degree of unreality about what is actually happening in this young man’s body. Whatever this ‘faith’ is, it is not grounded in the incarnate truth of a young man in a broken body who needs to be focused on ‘getting better’ (as much as is attainable), and ‘getting to know Jesus’ …

    1. Dear Adrian, thank you for contributing to this blog – and I’m so sorry to hear about the injury of your friend. I do understand the heart behind people’s desire for healing – especially in the early days. It’s an expression of love. Hopefully, with time, they can develop a more mature view as the circumstances emerge. I know it’s pase to be self promoting, but you might be interested to read my memoir – husbands should not Break, as it explores my experience of rehab, and covers these topics. It might give you and your friends some insight about the nature of the journey. Sincerely, Shane.

  9. Dear Shane, Thanks for the reply. Yes, you are right about seeing the heart behind the desire for healing. I desire healing for this young man too … but right now — quite frankly — he needs us to be focusing on his rehab and other longer-term needs; not just the expected healing that will negate the need for these. But I know not everyone is in this space.

    I did order your book, and am really finding benefit in it. Nearly finished! It’s been great to read it as a sequential account so close to the timing of our friend’s accident. It is helping increase our understanding and empathy. As I read, and as I visit him, I think of you often. I wonder what life is holding for you now. I notice the blog has been a bit quieter the last year or so, but figure you have more to do in life than just write blog posts! And sometimes some things are more for one season than for another. Nevertheless, I do wonder. Perhaps one day we might grab a coffee together; I’d like that. (But there’s no pressure on you to feel likewise.)

    Thanks for boldly sharing your journey, with all of its knocks, hope, rough edges. May grace continue to be sustaining for you … Adrian

    1. Great to hear you are enjoying the book and finding it useful. In terms of the blog, I have just been focusing my writing attention elsewhere, completing a book that will come out in early 2018. If you are in Sydney and near Parramatta then I would be open for a coffee.

  10. Shane, I finished the book last night. Imagine my horror and surprise when (SPOILER ALERT for any other readers) you didn’t spring out of your chair in the final chapter, to the praise and glory of Marilyn Hickey! Perhaps I will have to hang out for your 2018 sequel for that one. 😉 Anyway, great to hear you are still writing; you’re very easy to read (as is Elly) … and that is a powerful tool to have in your arsenal. I will email you re: the other offer (thanks for that); see if a time presents itself soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s