The mental muscles we need to flourish in a pandemic

Stephanie Kate Judd has a very personal reason for addressing the fear, frustration, disappointment and despair that have faced people during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s not mere academic interest that prompts her to analyse the uncomfortable realities of the past two years in ADM’s sixth Annual Public Lecture by ADM, entitled The Dignity of our Limits, to be streamed online tomorrow evening. (Use code 2021APLSPEAKER to receive a free ticket.)

Until she was 15 years old, Steph revelled in her God-given attributes. Beautiful, brainy and sporty, she was in the top team of every sport she played, a member of the school orchestra and a high achiever academically. Little wonder, then, that she formed her identity through the prism of her abilities.

“I’m so ambitious and a lot of my identity was in what I could do,” she explains. “So it’s like, keep on achieving, achieving, achieving, and then that’s where your worth is. Through natural bestowed ability I was able to do pretty much anything I put my hand to – until I wasn’t.”

“The right side of my body simply did and does not cooperate with my mind’s instructions.”

At age 15, Steph developed a condition called dystonia, which involved constant involuntary muscle seizures down the whole right side of her body. Over the course of a year, her condition deteriorated until she couldn’t even hold a pencil or throw a ball.

“I’d baffled the world’s top neurologists and exhausted every avenue of medical testing. Contrary to all the advice I’d absorbed to that point, the harder I tried, the worse things got. The right side of my body simply did and does not cooperate with my mind’s instructions. My involuntary muscle seizures worsened and became a constant part of my life. They are to this day,” she writes in an article in Eureka Street.

Growing up, Steph had never been taught how to deal with frustration. She’d been schooled in the philosophy that if you try hard enough, you will succeed. Suddenly she had to learn what to do when no amount of determination would overcome frustrating circumstances that were outside her control.

Still ambitious, Steph has achieved a great deal, working as a solicitor in Sydney, studying theology at Oxford University and being an ADM Senior Fellow in 2021 as well as an associate at the Centre for Public Christianity. Yet Steph’s physical disability continues to affects every part of her life and it has not been easy to find ways to thrive. But she has gleaned a lot from other people who have been dealt a difficult hand and have still found ways to handle their limitations better and more gracefully.

“Mercifully I mostly experience discomfort, not pain, but, when I don’t pay attention to my body’s limits, which I often don’t because so much of the way that I thought about my life was the pursuit of productivity and, gain and efficiency,” she says.

“When I don’t live well within my limits, that’s when my constraints really kick in. So if I’m not sleeping, if I’m not eating well, if I don’t exercise, if I don’t rest, if I don’t Sabbath, my body really lets me know that that’s not okay. So that’s part of the story that I have in terms of what’s the relationship between limits and constraints.”

“There’s a difference between our limits that are good given things that we’re endowed with and constraints.”

In focusing on what it means to be “embodied and embedded in time and space”, her annual lecture examines the implications of what is it to be human, limited, and finite.

“In my mind, there’s a difference between our limits that are good given things that we’re endowed with and constraints, so that’s an important distinction,” Steph tells Eternity.

“So one of the big things in the talk is that when we go with the grain of our limits that can lead to thriving; an important caveat to that is, of course, that not everything that restricts us is a good, given limit. There are things that impose upon us that are not with the grain of the created order, that aren’t conducive to our flourishing.

“Obviously, during this pandemic, we’re being confronted with constraints, so things that we didn’t choose, which have restricted our autonomy. I think that, even though there’s a difference between limits and constraints, I think that the same kind of virtues that we cultivate to help us to live well within our limits also help us to live well within our constraints.

“And that’s because the kinds of virtues like humility, reverence, patience, moderation, those kinds of virtues, they translate across. So the more we exercise those muscles, the better we are at handling our constraints.”

Because the air we breathe cultivates expressive individualism, she goes on, we think that we are our minds, and so anything that limits the expression of our will is a bad thing.

“I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think that autonomy is the only good for humans. And so anything that can help us yield to something greater than ourselves is actually a good part of your toolkit because it helps you to live well within your limits; but also because when constraints come up, which I don’t think necessarily are good, that muscle is stronger and it helps you to respond in a way that I think is better for us.”

“I’m not saying that you don’t have ambitions, but it’s just about … what happens when they’re intruded upon.”

Accepting her limitations does not mean Steph glorifies them. On the contrary, she pursues every avenue of therapy to improve her physical abilities.

“That’s an equally important part of what it is to steward the body that God has given us,” she says.

“When you realise that God took on frailty and limitation it’s really exciting because it means that if you look at the life of Jesus, he was someone who did a trade. He lived in a small area, he invested in a small group of people and he didn’t run for political office, but I don’t think any of us can say that he didn’t have a meaningful life.

“So when I talk about embracing our limits, I’m not saying that you don’t have ambitions, but it’s just about the relationship you have to those ambitions and what happens when they’re intruded upon. So what happens when they’re interrupted? What happens when they’re foiled? That kind of thing is where I think a different view about limits can really transform the way that we approach the disappointment and frustration and all of the things that we’ve been dealing with the last two years.”

“When you realise that dependency is actually an opportunity for connection, then that’s really profound.”

While Steph says she has always had a very strong sense of God’s presence, her relationship with Jesus has been deepened through the gift of her frailties and weakness.

“I’ve always had a very strong sense of closeness to Jesus, but that’s just amplified throughout this. And the reason for that is because just as in human relationships, on the horizontal scale, when we have need, that creates the opportunity for intimacy, the same is true on a vertical, divine plane, because I need more help more often and that kind of posture is so built into the habits of my prayer life. I’m constantly asking for help,” she says.

“When you look at the Beatitudes, it says ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ – those that recognise they need help. So when you no longer see independence and autonomy as the only good, when you realise that dependency is actually an opportunity for connection, then that’s really profound and that’s just deepened the intimacy that I have with Jesus.”

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ADM Annunal Lecture

Calendar Icon08/02/2022

clock icon7:30 pm

Map Marker IconOnline –