Mētis and Disability Gain
The disablement of the blacksmith is depicted in various ways . . . One group of paintings shows Hephaestus with twisted limbs, bent feet and curved legs; in the other group we see the figure moving in two different directions, either with the left foot pointing forwards and the right bent backwards, or with the feet placed heel to heel with one facing left and other right, or else with his head turned to face forwards in contrast to his feet which are pointed backwards. . . the peculiar shape of his feet is the visible symbol of his mētis, his wise thoughts and his craftsman’s intelligence. . . the power of Hephaestus which is emphasised by his distinctive characteristic of being endowed with a double and divergent orientation. (Detienne and Vernant, 271-272)
We live in a world in which there are many voices telling us the “right” way to be. Whether that is explicit in ethical claims or implicit in the way the world is designed for the “right” bodies and identities, we swim in a soup of messaging that is dominantly ableist. Ableism is bias (and discrimination) based on a conceptual dichotomy between good and less-than, normal and abnormal, whole and broken, functional and dysfunctional, expected and peculiar, pure and contaminated, conforming and divergent. Those who are non-conforming and peculiar in some way, or even simply ambiguous and resisting binary categories, are met with erasure, avoidance, pity, scorn, and disgust – this is associated with the bias of disablism. Ableism is its often-hidden partner, in which those who are conforming are praised, welcomed, accepted, highlighted, and sought-after such that divergence and difference is secondarily marginalized as an imposter – as less-than.
There can be protective purposes for certain binary categories of good/not-good. Involuntary disgust may at times be biological and adaptive, such as finding spoiled, rotten food. We recoil and retch: Not good! Don’t eat it! When there are genuine threats in our environment, we do well to pay attention to aversions, preferences and their wisdoms. We can study them as adaptive developments, insofar as that is actually accurate. But they are not always wise when the issue is not survival per se but comfort. As we reify many kinds of aversions and preferences into our behaviors and structures as rules-of-thumb, comfort works at cross-purposes with a growth-mindset. Nonetheless, we speak the rules of familiarity and same-ness to ourselves, we teach them to others, we build them into our concepts and structures. And more often than we care to admit, these rules are full of the biases of disablism and ableism, protecting us from the discomforts of other-ness and change. There is no wisdom in these habits.
For a fairly straightforward example, consider how often we are oblivious to the structures built for able-bodiedness in our environments, taking for granted that walkways, buildings and signs accommodate those that move steadily, upright, and quickly with “normal” (in other words, privileged and culturally preferred) bodies and senses. Oblivious until we or someone we care for is excluded from use or even endangered by flummoxing design flaws, and now our attention is turned to the ableist construction.
My interest with my clients is where ableism shows up in our attitudes towards ourselves and the structures we have built for our own self-understanding and identities. Where we experience ourselves as ambiguous, divergent, different, non-conforming, disabled, and peculiar – how often do we thoughtlessly, cruelly, or incuriously apply value judgments of broken, bad, and less-than. We hide, even from ourselves. We whisper: “I am an imposter to this life.” As if we could meaningfully be an imposter to our own existence?
This cruel ableism is too often the raison d’être of medical, consulting, and coaching work, and in the foreground of both the consultant and the client’s attitudes: “I am broken. Fix me.” Modern health care and its marketing is the example par excellence of systemic ableism. But I want to invite a resistance, or at least a critical reframing, of an unjust assumption that our non-normative ambiguities and disablings exist only to be made invisible, erased, eliminated, fixed or cured. Could we sit together for a bit longer, with empathy and receptivity to what uniqueness reveals, before we decide what it means? Could we be gentle with the shame-feelings that often come with ableist bias? Perhaps we make space for you to decide what your peculiarities, divergence and disablings might mean before we think about what to do. We may find that no cure is needed or wanted at all, but simply a caring-for and being-with.
The existential meaning of our various ambiguities, peculiarities and non-conforming disablings is embodied, storied and our-own. What a difference in perspective – both broadly and in your own story – if your peculiarity is the opening to exploring possibilities in creative, defiant mētis rather than offering your being and becoming to erasure. Who says that what is actualized must be the common and the conforming rather than the queer and persistently ambiguous? Not those who are radically open to the richness of human possibilities in its infinite diversity. Could we love ourselves better in our emerging possibilities? Also, too, when we find a firmly closed door and with disappointment or sorrow, we choose to lift our hearts for some open window?
This shift in attitude towards the empowering possibilities in our disabling experiences (and not only that of physical bodies but every dimension) is called disability gain, and it is a wisdom-practice of perspective, curiosity, creativity, knowledge and sound judgment. Detienne and Vernant’s work with the myth of Hephaestus, referenced in the opening quote of this musing, uncovers and models disability gain. The Greek god Hephaestus was cunning craftsman of forge and fire – also mutilated in his lower limbs by his father Zeus. The peculiarity and ambiguity of his body are not hidden but highlighted as both accompanying and fortifying his mētis. He is a master of the knowledge called technê, shaping the elements into traps and machines, including the horse’s bit. He realizes possibilities in ways that are missed by those who do not have the disabling of his “double and divergent orientation.” Of note, Hephaestus does not overcome his disability. Rather, his visible disability of limbs is part and partner with his unique capacities and highlighted in Greek art as his mētis-marking.
Hephaestus is disabled and deformed . . . it is the power of Hephaestus which is emphasised by his distinctive characteristic of being endowed with a double and divergent orientation. In order to dominate shifting, fluid powers such as fire, winds and minerals which the blacksmith must cope with, the intelligence and mētis of Hephaestus must be even more mobile and polymorphic than these. They must possess the qualities of the oblique and the curved. (Detienne and Vernant, 272-273)
This narrative of the cunning Hephaestus has been further explicated by Jay Timothy Dolmage in his wonderful work, Disability Rhetoric (2014).
Hephaestus might become not just a model for alternative versions of agency, but also a model for the agency we might all have access to, once we are willing to consider reversing, moving sideways, facing traps. This is not to suggest that disability should be erased. Just because Hephaestus might symbolize the ways we all move, the rhetoric we all have access to, does not mean that we are all disabled, nor does it mean that disability does not exist. . . . The celebration of Hephaestus, his craft, his cunning, his ability, as well as the deification of his disability are means of challenging held perceptions about the mythical character, but also about all of us – defined as we all are by concepts of ability, by rhetorics of normalcy. Telling Hephaestus’s story makes a difference. As we retell it and reinterpret it we need to use mētis ourselves. We then open up the possibility of situating disability as strength, as fit for a world that is also cunning, changing, and changeable. (186-187)
If we are looking to cultivate this wisdom, we would do well to look freshly at what we name as our own peculiarities and disablings for our disability gain – for new possibilities as strength. As Dolmage points out, this is not to force the rhetoric of disability into all/none dichotomies, but rather to reengage the twisting-limbs of our own stories for our existential dance. We all have disabling experiences at various times. I’ve been encountering how my aging is a disabling. My peculiarity of existential focus is disabling in contemporary health care, as colleagues dismiss it and me as non-conforming. The indignities of certain feeling states or my body’s acting-out are events of disabling. During the pandemic, wearing face masks or using video platforms was a disabling to my preferred modes of interacting. Some chronic, others temporary, all can be simultaneously validated and transcended in and through my attitudes and story-telling for a new rhetoric of disability and a resistance to ableist interpretations of either/or. At the moment of mētis, there is no normal. There is just this moment of life with its possibilities and a creative will-to-meaning.
Honoring my disabling experiences for their meaning was critically driven home for me several years ago when my sister, Liz Parks, reminded me in a midnight dialogue that “Jesus was disabled.” The world was unwilling and unable to accommodate his diversity and divergence, his peculiarity and ambiguity. That the holy ones of wisdom-stories are marked by divergence and their corresponding mētis wisdom in an ableist world invites the possibility of re-sacralizing our own storied disablings. It is Jesus, after all, who taught his disciples to hold fast to both love and shrewd cunning in a world of predatory wolves, with survival heightened by mētis: “be wise as the serpents and pure as the doves” (Matthew 10:16). In the Christian tradition, the cunning serpent can find love and wisdom well-met. Welcome mētis!
While no one has the authority to compel us to be “normal” – a category that defies any existential meaningfulness – we are also not compelled to be “sacred” in our differences. Some differences are utterly profane and we name them as such; sometimes that is their revelatory power – that they are imperfectly imperfect. Perhaps even absurd, or meaningless. That makes our own storied selves nothing less. At other times we might name our disablings as holy – wholly set-apart, unique, precious, loved, revelatory and redeeming. From an existential perspective, disablings offer meanings to discover and name – to sacralize and desacralize – and then responsibly engage and imagine for our life and love.
The image I chose for this post is of the Buddha’s feet tattooed with swirling labyrinths. I mean to remind us that like Hephaestus with his curved limbs or Jesus with his crucified body, our embodied existence is marked in both visible and invisible ways with our own twisting, crooked, and oft-disabling paths towards enlightenment. What does the “footwork” on a twisting path look like, feel like? It is pure dance. It is as Hesphaestus, “moving in two different directions . . . left foot pointing forwards and the right bent backwards.” It is a dancing mētis at work in disability gain – creative moving, shifting, responding, bowing, pivoting. This is a mētis that resists and dismantles false ableisms for the sake of wisdom’s creativity and cunning. This is a mētis that names as sacred what was once profane, or profanes what others might deem sacred, and demands meaning from all these for our defiant story-telling.
Our divergence invites our side-steps in the world’s labyrinths of meaning. Our non-conformity invites us to choreograph our own dances of joyful peculiarity as existential courage. In the sinuous curves of your dance, could I suggest that you give a little thought to the accompanying soundtrack of choice? The creative wisdom of your disability gains deserves an anthem of joy to match this whirling dervish of a dance.
Note for the curious: The contemplative whirling dervish in the Sufi tradition is a gorgeous metaphor with depth to explore!
- Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978.
- Jay Timothy Dolmage. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014.
- Bible, Literal Standard Version, accessed at: https://biblehub.com/parallel/matthew/10-16.htm