First published on 24th June 2015 here:
“Why do we suffer? What is truth? Are our lives predestined by fate, or God, or do we have the power of self-determination? What does it mean to be a person? What is a miracle?”
All of these are questions currently pinned onto the wall in my classroom, awaiting discussion by potential sixth-form philosophy students.
All of them are questions that I have discussed with students past and present, both before and since discovering that I have MS; both before and since telling students that I have MS.
Lots of facets of my life have shifted since my diagnosis, but the core elements of these discussions have not changed – teenagers remain reassuringly constant in their responses. Nowadays, now my students know, I will hear an occasional, “I mean, no offence Miss, but…” before a student continues on their trajectory, only momentarily fazed by social convention and the brief realisation of the relevance of the comment to my own personal situation.
My body is not me
All in all, my students have subscribed to the idea, once attributed to CS Lewis, that, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” My body is not me, and my students see past this unreliable and sometimes unfit-for-purpose exterior, and realise that I am still me – I am my soul, whatever they might take that to mean.
My MS has also given students pause for thought when considering the question of personhood – one young man was adamant that to be a person, one had to be in control of their physical body. With no words, and just a subtle raise of an eyebrow, I watched him slowly consider the full force of this strongly held notion, and saw the workings of his internal dialogue alter. As the rest of the class looked on, he announced, “Actually, that can’t be right can it? Otherwise, I am saying that if you can’t move, like when your legs stopped working, that you aren’t a person. That isn’t what I think.”
Telling people I have MS
I had been nervous about telling students that I have MS. I did not want to influence their thinking, did not want to introduce any element of bias into our discussions. I have always welcomed candour and openness, and I shied away from anything that could invite censorship or politeness for its own sake.
But I realised quickly that was the wrong approach. Everyone who has ever shared a classroom with a teacher, student, class, has been influenced by their story, their personality, their mood. We are not robotic machines, programmed to deliver the curriculum, the whole curriculum and nothing but the curriculum. Our students are changed because of knowing us, and for me to teach sitting in a wheelchair, or sporting a flowery walking stick, could actually be a positive influence for those students, a testament to the fact that being unable to do “something” is not the same as being unable to do “anything”.
Finding the light
Perhaps the most uncomfortable (in the early stages at least) questions to address are those around suffering, and why “bad” things happen to people. Discussions that address the possibility of karma, or retribution, can falter if not carefully handled. St Augustine of Hippo suggested, in response to the question of suffering, that evil did in fact not exist, it is simply an absence of good, comparing it to darkness as an absence of light. This concept sits alongside my favourite quote: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”. So I have come to consider the “darkness” of MS as something that can be countered by light: the light of action, of positivity, of determination, of seeing the good and focusing on that. Suffering is not a thing, it is a space waiting to be filled, a darkness waiting to be illuminated.
The painting of a candle in my classroom, a gift from a student inspired by that very quote, illustrates this beautifully, as does the inscription on a silver bangle, another gift from a whole Philosophy class, which encourages me on a daily basis to “Find hope in the darkest days”.
Trying to teach students the answers, when I do not see the answers myself, was never going to be easy, with or without MS. So I teach them to see questions as an invitation to find their own answers, and when faced with the darkness of uncertainty, as we all are sometimes, to follow this mantra: “When you can’t see the light, be the light.”