Last month I went to see a play with friends at Phoenix Theater called “Typhoid Mary”. The screenplay was a comedic look at the life and times of Mary Mallon, the infamous carrier of typhoid who is known for infecting over 50 people in New York. In fact, she’s known for nothing else. Her life and personality are hidden behind the disease; and this play took issue with that in a light-hearted way as it grappled with some deep themes. This play was rife with thoughtful discussion about the newly heralded “germ theory of disease” and how it affected society: the ramifications of having a causative agent on which to blame disease and death, at what point does society sacrifice the rights of an individual for the good of community, are we ever really safe or is it just an illusion? I’ve been thinking for weeks about the play, what it taught, and what I wanted to share about it. I’ve contemplated blog posts about each of the themes listed above in my head, churning words around, seeing how each might convey something important. In the end I’ve decided not to talk about any of these but instead discuss an underlying current in the play – and that is the “historic” view of disease.
Before the germ theory, society functioned on the belief that people who were good and God-fearing were healthy and sickness was a punishment for sin. This view was oft-cited in the play and Mary herself firmly clings to it, vehemently professing her goodness as a reason she couldn’t be making people sick. The play is set up so that at each interaction Mary has with an individual (usually doctor or public health official) confronting her about her part in the typhoid outbreaks, Mary feels cornered and is offered the choice to comply with grace or have testing and confinement forced upon her. Each time she harshly rejects any notion of responding with grace and relies solely on her personal morality as evidence that she’s being treated unfairly. The idea that a person’s circumstances are tied to their morality is one of the oldest, most pervasive, and deadliest lies circulating in human history. One of the oldest narratives recorded in the Bible recounts the life of Job, who lost everything when God allowed his faith to be tested. Job’s friends rush to comfort him and immediately assume this has happened due to some sin in his life. God quickly condemns this reasoning as false and inconsistent with His nature. But still the perception that “good things happen to good people” and vice-vera pervades religious and secular thinking. The play noted that the passage of time and the advancements in science have not abated this philosophy. Some of the examples they listed were “he was driving to fast”, “she smoked too much”, “they didn’t eat the right kinds of food”, “he ate too much food”…. always there’s a reflexive response to blame a circumstance on the behavior. The causes might change over the years but the reason hasn’t.
As the play unfolds, something must be done to make people feel they are safe and protected from disease. So they decide to incarcerate Mary on an island where she can’t infect anyone. And here we get to the crux of the matter – fear and a desire to control. Tying behavior to circumstances is nothing more than a way to feel like we’re in control of our world. “If I’m good, God will bless me”, “if I eat right, I’ll be healthy”, “if I’m healthy, I’ll live a long life”. Living in an arbitrary world is too scary – if things happen for no reason, then bad circumstances can happen to us at any time. If we can link outcomes to behavior, then we can put up walls and pretend these things won’t happen. But like the play tells us, it’s only illusion. The city of New York wasn’t safer because Mary was locked up against her will. There were other carriers identified, even others who were cooks like she was who also made people sick, but they weren’t isolated. And even if they did manage to get rid of all the carriers and typhoid was eliminated, there would be something else to threaten the perceived bubble of safety.
The truth, as Mary comes to realize at the end of the play, is that the world is a lot more complicated than to arrogantly assume that we can control God through our behavior. Tragedies, sickness, death happen to all and we all stand the same in God’s eyes. Our morality is nothing more than illusion and will save us from nothing. At this point in her life, Mary is sent to a hospital on an island where she can be kept under surveillance to make sure she doesn’t cook. Instead she nurses the sick in her ward. She relates her despair to one of the patients, crying to him that her faith has no place in a capricious world and all she’s lived for is meaningless. The patient takes her hand, places it on his heart and says “your faith has a place – right here – and goodness looks a lot like grace.” With those closing words of the play, we come full round again. Remember grace? It’s what Mary rejected at the beginning of the play while she clung to self-righteousness to vindicate her. By the end, she comes to understand that surrendering to grace is the only way to stand. The way to navigate through life without fear is not by trusting in your own morality, but by trusting the goodness of the One who offers grace and life to all who come to Him. In the epilogue we’re told that Mary served the sick with a gentle compassion that she’d never had before. Her courage and quiet strength calmed the sick and encouraged them. Through acceptance of grace she had the opportunity to do what she never had before – give life and love to others. It was only after the play was over and I was on the way home that I realized the play hadn’t been about disease at all, but about healing.
Blessings to you,