“Are you sure sweetheart that you want to be made well?”
These are the opening lines of Toni Cade Bambara’s amazing novel The Salt Eaters where black faith healer Minnie Ransom leads a community of friends and clinicians who respond to Velma Henry’s attempted suicide.
On the next page, the healer Minnie expounds: “I like to caution folks, that’s all. No sense us wasting each other’s time.”
On the third page, the healer continues, “A lot of weight when you’re well. Now you just hold that thought.”
The gospels portray Jesus with the same prodding – but with more brevity. Before a healing miracle, Jesus asks the man who has been sick for thirty-eight years, “Do you want to be made whole?” (John 5:6) Some biblical translations write this way,
“Do you want to be made well?”
I like this question for all that’s behind it.
The healers are asking: Are you willing to have a new experience?
You know sickness, but you don’t know wellness. You’ve learned how to manage what you do know. You know it like the back of your hand. You know how it dips, turns, and immobilizes. You know the hint that today is a bad day. You know how to hide it, work through it, or surrender to it. At least I do. So are you willing to venture into the unknown? Are you ready to learn new ways of being in the world? Are you willing to trade a familiar sickness for a health you may not recognize? Are you willing to feel things you haven’t felt before? That’s a lot of weight. Are you sure you want to be made well?
The healers are asking: Are you willing to work for it?
The road from sick A to well B is not straight or paved. It winds; there are obstacles; you will fall on the path. Are you willing to get back up again? And again? You will feel like you are groping in the dark. Will you trust that there is light at the end? Until you get there, can you work with the shadows? You will need community. Can you trust those who love you? Can you hold tight with one hand and release with the other? You will have to trust in the process. You will need faith. Do you want to be made well?
These are real questions for people who live with chronic conditions like Bambara’s Velma, the gospel’s sick man, and those of us who live with mental health challenges. Of course one wants to feel better. But are we willing to have new experiences? Are we willing to work for it? Do we want it bad enough?
Getting to “yes,” is a journey all its own. It’s a big deal to crave wellness more the comfort of what is well known, and in the face of the trial-and-error character of the work. It takes many of us years to excavate the hope that is needed to walk the way to wellness. That should be enough.
“Do you want to be made well?”
I like this question for all that’s behind it. I also like this question for all that it’s not. It’s not:
Why are you here?
What are your symptoms?
Do you have health insurance?
I suspect that contemporary healers want to be like Minnie and Jesus. They don’t want their first questions to be clinical and financial. They don’t want to identify people by what they’ve done or how they’ve felt. They don’t want to come up with names so that they know how to bill people. I suspect that they want to assure people that they can be well. I think healers want to hold hands along the way. I imagine healers want to do what works. I suspect that contemporary healers even crave the confidence of Minnie and Jesus: That if you want to be well, I can help you get there.
This is one of the reasons for why I support universal healthcare, and think all people of faith should as well. Because it’s hard to live with deep pain and still say, “Yes, I’m willing to embark on what is uncertain. Yes, I’m willing to work. Yes, I believe.” I want a society where that’s the hard work. Not the paperwork. Not the fear of a diagnosis because it will kill your chances of getting individual health coverage, let alone life insurance. Not avoiding doctors because you can’t afford them. Not telling your secrets to someone you don’t trust because the therapist you like doesn’t take insurance. Not taking a death-dealing job for health benefits with pitiful mental health coverage. Not finally finding the right medication and realizing that it costs $400 a month because insurance only covers generic and that doesn’t work. When you’re trying to heal, you shouldn’t have to worry about these kinds of things.
I want a society where the healers ask the only question they need to know: Do you want to be made well?