The Metamorphosis: Disability and the Search for Meaning in Life

  One morning, the salesman Gregor woke up from a disturbing sleep and found that he had turned into a huge beetle. He struggled to get up, but couldn’t move. He could only see many pitifully thin legs trembling helplessly in front of him. The famous anthropologist Robert Murphy experienced a “Metamorphosis” similar to that of Kafka’s protagonist. In 1972, the forty-eight-year-old Murphy resigned from his position as chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University, looking forward to the free life that was about to begin. However, when he sought medical attention for strange muscle spasms in his anus, he learned he had a spinal cord tumor. Over the next ten years, he experienced progressive disability, until his limbs were completely paralyzed and he passed away.
  Although both Murphy and Gregor experienced the pain of “transformation”, their experiences were very different. Gregor was rejected by everyone, including his close relatives, and starved to death amid indifference, isolation, insults, and beatings, while Murphy’s situation was much better. During Murphy’s illness, the United States was strengthening legislation to protect the rights and interests of people with disabilities, and the rights movement for people with disabilities was booming. Murphy feels that he lives in an era where “marriage is built on quicksand,” but his relationship with his wife Yolanda is quite stable, and he received adequate care from his wife after he became disabled. Murphy’s academic achievements and reputation before his illness enabled him to continue working and maintain the necessary financial income and social circle after his illness. However, the above-mentioned luck can only bring some comfort to Murphy at most, but cannot eliminate the deep-rooted pain and anger that Murphy felt after falling from the peak of life into the valley of the shadow of death. He contemplated suicide, but ultimately decided to accept his fate.
  The change in identity prompted Murphy to see people with disabilities in a new light. He recalled the people he met in Africa who had lost arms, legs, and noses to leprosy. He realizes that he looks down on them with a sense of superiority, and his sympathy for the latter is limited to “dropping coins into the cup sticking out of the end of the stump.” Murphy experienced the pain of a disabled body and began to understand more deeply the pain and struggles of people with disabilities. He and his wife took a canoe through the rapids of the Amazon River Basin, living among the Indians and studying their culture. Now he decided to conduct field research in American society, observing himself and other disabled people from the perspective of an anthropologist, and re-examining human nature and American society. In 1987, Murphy’s book “The Silent Body: The Extraordinary World of People with Disabilities”, written in a wheelchair, was published. It is not only the result of Murphy’s anthropological research, but also the history of self-redemption in his fight against disease.
  Murphy spent his teenage years in a family shrouded in gloom: his Irish father was impoverished due to alcoholism and unemployment during the Great Depression, and his mother, the breadwinner of the family, died of cancer. Murphy, who tasted the bitter taste of life too early, relied on his strong willpower to work his way up from the bottom. During World War II, Murphy served in the Navy and became addicted to alcohol. However, this did not prevent him from being admitted to Columbia University and eventually became a respectable and respected middle-class intellectual elite.
  After becoming ill, Murphy found that everything he had worked hard to gain was horribly lost. He realized that he was caught in a web from which he could never escape: he would become a “prisoner” of the medical establishment and have to submit to its paramilitary management. Along with this comes a certain degree of social death. When he attended Professors’ Club meetings in his wheelchair or went to restaurants with his family, he was often hurt by the fact that his presence was almost completely ignored. Murphy found that since becoming ill, some of his friends began to avoid him. As the illness worsened, more and more of his past friends disappeared from his sight. He thought they meant no harm but simply didn’t know how to deal with his misfortune. However, this avoidance still stabbed Murphy’s heart like a knife. According to Murphy, the reason why able-bodied people avoid people with disabilities is because the existence of the latter constantly reminds able-bodied people that society is full of inequality and pain, and that everyone is vulnerable. In other words, people with disabilities represent a terrifying possibility that able-bodied people are unwilling to face. He wrote angrily: “In the face of able-bodied people, I must be firm and optimistic in order to maintain their confidence that they will avoid disaster.” Family is Murphy’s refuge from indifference, but he sometimes also suffers from life problems. Painful need to depend on wife. In addition to innocent harm, Murphy also had to face some people who were discriminatory and even hostile to people with disabilities. They regard people with disabilities as a burden on society and believe that the latter should be responsible for their own misfortunes. Murphy believes that the popularity of values ​​​​that advocate youth, vitality and beautiful bodies in the United States has exacerbated people’s hatred of disability. In contemporary America, many middle-class people who no longer believe in the salvation of the soul have turned to the “salvation of the body”: care for the body has evolved into a blind worship, and physical exercise has developed from a rational personal interest to a fanatical behavior. Murphy observed that the gap between able-bodied people and disabled people stems not only from the prejudices of able-bodied people, but also from the psychological distortions of disabled people caused by physical damage and hostility from the outside world. They are prone to feelings of shame, overly sensitive self-esteem and attacks on themselves, as well as anger and resentment directed at the outside world.
  Faced with both physical and mental pain, as well as the end of complete paralysis of his limbs, Murphy fought with a Sisyphus-like spirit. It is not difficult to see that an important driving force for Murphy’s ceaseless struggle is his strong desire to return to mainstream society and gain recognition from it. In Murphy’s view, the United States is a society that advocates independence and self-struggle. The protagonists in the movies “High Noon” and “Into the Wild” are typical American heroes. These “mythologized” individuals have strong physical strength and selfless spirit, and successfully fight evil and uphold justice without the help of the government or others; in contrast, disabled people who are physically impaired and often need to rely on others It is the opposite of this kind of hero. American society’s obsession with power and autonomy clearly puts some pressure on Murphy. Before his illness, Murphy strived to reach the top and sought recognition from mainstream society. This can be seen from the “Murphy’s First Law” he summarized. This law shows Murphy’s view on the academic circle: “In the first stage, young scholars are worried about whether they can make a debut; in the second stage, senior scholars are worried about whether they can become famous.” After falling ill, Murphy became more and more afraid of losing his strength and ability. autonomy and thus loss of social value. This fear can be seen from his work status after becoming ill. He admitted that after he became ill, he worked harder than when he first entered the academic circle and faced the pressure of “either publish or perish”: “I struggled and tried to deny my disability. My behavior of going beyond the physical limits was to inform academics. World, I am still alive.” After his illness, Murphy received a teaching award from Columbia University. He regarded the award dinner as a ceremony to reintegrate into society and be accepted by society. When Murphy’s 1979 work “Prelude to Social Anthropology” received rave reviews, he was quite proud: “It brought me back to academia and publishing. It evoked in me a belief that had once wavered. That is, I am still a valuable person, I can still win the respect of society, and my life is still valuable.”
  What drives Murphy is not just a strong desire to be recognized by mainstream society. His struggle also stems from a deeper motivation: a belief in the value of life. Like most anthropologists, Murphy believes that people in different cultural forms have invented their own meaning systems in order to understand the world and give it value. Most meaning systems are only meaningful to the cultural forms to which they belong and have no cross-functionality. cultural attributes. However, Murphy is not a complete value relativist. He believes that the preservation and continuation of life is regarded as the most important value in any culture, and life is the only value that transcends other values. In Murphy’s view, life means contempt for passivity, inertia and death. The power of life drives countless people to enter social life and carry out the great struggle for dignity and freedom. It was precisely because of his belief in the value of life that Murphy gave up the idea of ​​suicide, fought against the disease, and worked hard to demonstrate the value of life. The process of people with disabilities breaking free from the “cage of the body” and pursuing independence is equivalent to “completing a sacrament.”

  Out of his belief in the value of life, Murphy admires those disabled people who have a strong will to live, while those disabled people who lack the will to live and succumb to the “impulse to retire” are regarded by Murphy as “real disabled people.” They “maintain their own small world with only disability benefits, their lives are confined to the four walls of their apartment, and they can only understand the outside world through television.” In Murphy’s view, their isolation and inertia are “a symbol of death itself”. As outsiders of social life, their lives died prematurely. Murphy knows that the success of disabled heroes, including himself, requires the support of physical, intellectual, material, cultural and other conditions. However, Murphy does not have real sympathy and understanding for those disabled people who lack the conditions and ability to be active in social life. To a certain extent, this reflects his strong mentality of advocating the will to life.
  If life is endless and struggle continues, then in which direction should life strive? Murphy is confused on this issue. After falling ill, Murphy worked with an almost fanatical spirit, even at the expense of his health. He recounted his reaction when a small ulcer appeared on his left hip in 1980: “I was too busy to waste time in the doctor’s waiting room. I had to keep working, sitting there every day from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. In a wheelchair, a plain mattress from a department store was my only fight against the disease.” Murphy’s disdain for the disease caused small sores to grow into large, nearly life-threatening bed sores that reached deep into his sit bones and resulted in three excruciating hospital visits. Operation. When Murphy described this “heroic deed” in the book, he was quite proud of his own strength. But he also reveals, with a rare honesty, the falsehood contained in his own heroism. He admitted that his wife was tired of the “courage” he often displayed because she saw that when the joy brought by struggle disappeared, the negative emotions accumulated in fighting setbacks would burst out. Murphy sees a similar performance in his wife: “Her role in public is that of a happy wife, a self-sacrificing companion who accompanies her disabled husband without complaint, but her behavior behind the scenes may be completely opposite.” Fei honestly reveals his dilemma: the will of life pushes him to break through the shackles of the physical body and pursue freedom and autonomy, but he still cannot escape the shackles of the soul. He is like the bourgeoisie described by Rousseau, who lives in the eyes of society or others, and seems to lack confidence when facing the opinions of society or the majority.
  In the opening chapter of “The Silent Body”, he describes a scene in the hospital: One midnight, the silence of the night is suddenly broken by the sound of prayer, when a patient with terminal multiple sclerosis recites the words that Murphy recited as a child. As he prayed, he began to pray along silently. He described feeling the “momentary magic” of the prayer, but when the sound of the prayer disappeared, it became “a kind of empty comfort”. In his view, those who pray are dependent and involuntary. He spoke disparagingly of those who relied on alcohol groups or churches to escape addiction. Murphy had been addicted to alcohol for many years, but he refused help from any organization and eventually succeeded in giving up alcohol on his own. This experience made Murphy feel proud: “I announced that I had regained control of my behavior…to shape myself into an independent person.” Paradoxically, Murphy, who pursues independence, has a strong desire to seek recognition from society. . This seems to confirm Tocqueville’s analysis of modern individuals in democratic societies: they “will not easily believe in God’s messengers and dare to laugh at new prophets” and often overestimate individual rationality. However, they It is easy to obey the authority of the “majority” or “public opinion” in society. Tocqueville foresaw the imperceptible dominance of modern society over individuals.
  Murphy regards being alienated from society and living alone as a symbol of the withering of life and the death of the self. He seemed not to have thought that maintaining a certain alienation from society does not necessarily mean laziness or escape, but it may also be the beginning of breaking away from the constraints of society and exploring spiritual freedom. It was when Rousseau was far away from the social life of Paris and became a “lonely wanderer” that he deeply thought about how people can escape slavery and achieve freedom. Rousseau and Murphy both advocated “autonomy”, but their understanding of autonomy was different. Murphy focuses on enhancing individual power and getting rid of dependence on others in social life. In Rousseau’s view, autonomy means obeying only the laws of one’s own consent in social life, thereby getting rid of the control of others. But this alone is not enough. People also need to get rid of the dominance of desires, customs, public opinion and other forces in their moral life, and obey the inner moral law before they can truly become their own masters. Rousseau’s understanding of autonomy includes both the external social life and the internal spiritual life. Compared with Rousseau, Fanny Crosby, a blind poetess who lived in New York from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, was more focused on the path to inner freedom. Finney became blind not long after she was born. Her disability limited her participation in social life, but also inspired her to explore her inner life. Although she suffered a series of misfortunes – blindness, the loss of her father in childhood, the death of her children, and the early death of her husband, she worked tirelessly to preach, treated patients during the cholera epidemic, wrote thousands of hymns, and won many simultaneous awards. Love and respect from all generations. Finney and Murphy’s mental states are quite different. Murphy is anxiously aggressive in social life to prove the value of his existence. Although Finney also actively participates in social life, she has a kind of inner peace when facing society because she firmly believes that society or the majority cannot judge her value. Interestingly, Finney did not fall into negativity, laziness and withering of life due to his trust in the “other” as Murphy feared. It is in the connection with the “other” that Finney draws the courage of life and the power of action, and passes this courage and power to others.
  At the end of “The Silent Body,” Murphy expresses his desire for freedom. In his view, most people are “born prisoners.” They live in walls of their own making, “gazing at the life outside through the barriers cast by culture and through the iron bars tempered by fear.” As an anthropologist, Murphy strives not to fall into any kind of cultural bias. However, the strong desire to gain social recognition makes Murphy obsessed with the path of self-salvation, which is to be proactive in social life. This shows that although Murphy strives to break away from the prison of “meaning”, he is still limited to the perspective of a modern individual. within the domain.

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