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Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser - 30/08/2012

Rev Dr Giles Fraser

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum asks a fascinating question: why do the Olympic gods so often fall in love with human beings? Why would an ethereal resident of Mount Olympus choose a mere mortal over the boundless perfection of a god?

Nussbaum answers this question by pointing out that, unlike the gods, human beings have to struggle to overcome their limitations. And it’s precisely in this struggle that human beings are compelling and noble. In contrast, the Olympic gods have no need of struggle. They effortlessly glide though life without obstacles to overcome. And this
gives their life a weightless superficiality. In such a life, nothing really matters.

It’s ironic, then, that the Olympic Games derives its name from the gods of Mount Olympus. For what sense can be made of an athletic contest between super-beings where there is no possibility of fatigue or injury or failure. Indeed, an Olympic god cannot have one leg. Or no eyesight. Or a broken back. Nussbaum’s point is this: triumph is only possible where there exists the reality of pain and loss. Herein lies the extraordinary beauty of human beings.

But this said, I still have reservations about the narrative of heroic achievement and disability bravely overcome. For, amongst other things, this presents us with a picture of disability that doesn’t ask us to look too deeply into the pain and loneliness that is many
people’s experience of being disabled. Indeed, I suspect that we don’t want to confront this sort of brokenness precisely because it reminds us a little too much of our own. Which, in Christian terms, is exactly the point of the cross and the broken God who hangs there, apparently
beyond help.

Of course there will be much to cheer in the success of the
paralympians over the next ten days. This is fundamentally a
celebration of sport. But nonetheless, we need to resist the move to turn athletic bodies into representations of all those who have disabilities. For by concentrating attention on disabled versions of an Olympic god - like marbled Greek statues with absent limbs and perfect six-packs - we can be avoiding another sort of reality; and
perhaps deliberately avoiding it because we find it too uncomfortable to deal with.

When in 1981 Ian Dury released the song Spasticus Autisticus with the brilliant line: “I wibble when I piddle coz my middle is a riddle” the BBC banned it from air. Some found it offensive, a little too near the knuckle. But his point was to push the boundaries of inclusion. Last
night’s opening ceremony, including this song, was a historic step forward in the fight to make disabled lives more visible. But there are still a great many people who will never throw a javelin or swim in a race. They must be visible too. For what matters most is our humanity and not our proximity to Olympian perfection.

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