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The Parable of The Paralysed Priest – Inconvenient Truths, Comfortable Lies

Parable of the Paralysed Priest inconvenient truth comfortable lies effective climate action

Awkward truth, wishful self-deception, storytelling – and effective climate action…

A good parable appears to reveal a truth about ourselves.

This parable reveals different truths to different readers.

Humans are good at lying.

We deceive others, but also ourselves.

Self-deception is the hardest lie to uncover.

What does this have to do with effective climate action?

First, a very simple parable…

The Parable of The Paralysed Priest

Some years past, there was a Wise Man. People sought him out when no other Wise Men could tell what ailed them.

One day a Wife came to the Wise Man. She pushed her husband in a wheeled chair.

‘Wise Man, please help us,’ said the Wife, ‘for my husband is a Priest. He is a Kind Priest. All his flock love him, but he is cursed, and walks not.’

‘Tell me, Kind Priest, what is your curse?’ asked the Wise Man.

‘Wise Man,’ said the Priest, ‘two years past, my legs moved no more. I do not know why. My Wife must now push me in this wheeled chair.’

‘Tell me,’ said The Wise Man, ‘are you sad?’

‘My flock loves me, and helps me, and is kind to me,’ said the Priest. ‘I love each of them like my own child, and each loves me like their own father. This makes me glad.’

The Wise Man thought a while. He did a test on the Priest’s knee with a small tool, and thought.

‘Why do you think your legs move no more?’ he asked the Priest.

‘I do not know,’ said the Priest. ‘I have been to many Wise Men, who have done many Tests, but they can not tell me what ails me, nor how to cure me.’

‘Kind Priest,’ said the Wise Man, ‘can you move your leg a teensy bit?’

‘Wise Man,’ said the Priest, ‘I see now why they say you are wise. For if God helps me and I feel God strong in me, I can move one leg a bit from time to time.’

The Wise Man looked at the Wife. The Wife looked at the Priest.

‘I will not cure you,’ said the Wise Man. ‘But I am glad that you are still glad.’

The wife pushed the Priest from the Wise Man’s place. The Wise Man called to her. The Wife came back on her own.

‘Good Wife,’ he began.

‘Say no more, Wise Man,’ said the Wife, ‘for I know what you would say, and I know my husband can walk.’

The Wise Man heard, but said not a word.

‘But he is a Kind Priest,’ said the Wife, ‘and though he does not walk, he is glad. His flock is glad to help him, and I am glad to help him. Please do not tell him he can walk.’

The Wise Man nodded, and said no more.

If all are glad, what is there to cure?


(By SternWriter, not quite as told to him by his wise neurologist father).

The story behind the parable

This parable was dashed off as a writing experiment.

Before setting up See Through News, founder Robert Stern (AKA SternWriter) spent months trying out different writing styles and techniques, in order to find the most effective and engaging tone, register and style for various audiences, and different purposes.

The aim of the exercise was simple. Or rather, to be simple.

SternWriter’s default mode of expression bends to the orotund – some would say pompous. His early narrative experiments were closer to the Dickens end of the spectrum than the Hemingway end.

Helpful critics pointed out this might not be the most effective mode of expression to reach a broad audience. So SternWriter set himself the simple task of writing super-simply:

  • Use monosyllables, wherever possible
  • No adjectives or adverbs
  • Favour the Anglo-Saxon over the Latinate
  • Short sentences, etc.

Thinking more about style rather than substance, SternWriter decided to relate an anecdote his neurologist father had told him decades before about one of his patients. He happened to have mentioned the story to a couple of people recently, so it was towards the front of his mind.

SternWriter finished the parable in an hour or so, and circulated it around some critical friends who’d been giving feedback on his writing experiments.

Then something very unexpected happened.

What happened next.

This parable provoked way more feedback than any previous piece of writing.

Critical friends spontaneously circulated The Parable of the Paralysed Priest among their own networks, to see what they thought. Many of those recipients, for their own reasons, passed it on to their friends. Soon, their feedback, queries and comments came flooding back to the author.

For any author, the further removed they are from the source of any feedback, the more interesting it is. You can never quite trust friends to be brutally honest, but strangers are unconcerned with letting you down gently or sparing your feelings. Feedback from strangers is the most useful and interesting kind.

Who’s the Parable about?

It rapidly became apparent that different groups of readers has very different assumptions about what the story was about, which generally related to who they saw as the central character.

Before the feedback, the author had supposed the parable’s 420 words featured three characters

  • The Wise Man
  • The Priest
  • The Priest’s Wife

But it turned out that for one tribe of readers, there was a fourth character:

  • The Wheeled Chair

This parable, because of its pared-down style, turned out to be a kind of Rorschach test. Different readers filled in the gaps with their own preoccupations, biases, presumptions, interest, experience and expertise. The most accurate predictor of what they thought the parable was about, was who they thought it was about.

The most engaged readers fell into 4 main tribes, each seeing their own ‘hero’.

Neurologists/Wise Man

First to respond were the neurologists, for whom the Parable presented a familiar clinical dilemma.

One eminent neurologist, a protegé of the narrator of the original pre-parable true story, was kind enough to circulate the parable among his peers, without disclosing its origin.

He too was surprised at their responses, which all assumed (not unreasonably, since it had been sent to them by a neurologist), that the story was ‘about’ the Wise Man.

Every day, neurologists are called upon to decide whether symptoms new patients describe to them are ‘organic’ (i.e. can be treated with pills or other ‘medical’ interventions) or not (i.e. they’re in the patient’s mind).

Straightforward cases require only a simple, single physical test. Neurologists’ briefcases are full of such instruments, from smelling salts, to visual charts, pins and patella hammers. A sharp rap with the latter just below the kneecap, and you’ll know if the problem is organic (no response) or not (a literal knee-jerk).

But what happens if a patient presenting as paralysed gives a knee-jerk response?

For much of the past hundred-plus years of modern neurology, such patients would have been, with some degree or other of politeness, told they were not ill. If anyone could help them, they’d be told, it would be the psychiatrist in the consulting room next door.

The founder of modern neurology, the Frenchman Charcot, describes such patients as victims of ‘hysteria’. Less charitable physicians harrumphed and call it ‘malingering’.

As medicine, and society, developed, ‘hysteria’ became unacceptable. It was replaced by the more neutral ‘psychosomatic illness’.

But like ‘hysteria’, this has became a loaded, biased term. An almighty debate now rages within the upper echelons of clinical neurology about its latest incarnation,’Functional Neurological Disorder’.

‘FND’ extends even more empathy toward the patient, but in the process further blurs the line between the traditional delineation of the role of a neurologist, who deals with organic illness, and a psychiatrist, who deals with what’s becoming known as ‘functional’ disorders.

Not all neurologists are comfortable with this expansion of their job description. So when the bland, Parable of the Paralysed Priest was circulated, it inadvertently happened in the midst of an almighty neurological ding-dong.

This lead to a fascinating series of correspondence, and insight into current consulting room gossip. Here’s an extract from a review by a leading FND expert:

I also meet a lot of people where the good outcome is ‘peace of mind’ or, as in this article, ‘feeling glad’, although in reality I think it’s hard to separate ‘feeling glad’ from ‘feeling glad because I don’t have to approach a problem that I’ve been avoiding’. An alcoholic might be glad to be left alone in the pub and not be dragged down to the rehab centre.

But certainly there are plenty of people like the paralysed priest out there who get dragged to clinic by a new GP or family member – one reason why we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about being selective for clinical trials, or why we should do trials with patient specific goals.

Here’s another perspective from his neurological colleague, who passed this tidbit on:

Some of the people that we see like the paralysed priest do not want to recover but feel that they must, because of the distress and burden they are putting on their family and flock. It is identical to addiction as my learned colleague has already pointed out.  In the priest’s case, there is no disease for a doctor to cure because of what we are told by his wife and him.

I wonder if Jesus could make him walk again by laying on hands

And a couple of days later, this third opinion opened up a whole new can of psychological worms –

Could this be tertiary gain – something positive for other people in caring for him?!

This was a reference to ‘Tertiary Morbid Gain’, a psychological disorder first proposed in the 70s, as a subtler extension to an existing taxonomy.

In Primary Morbid Gain, a patient gains an internal benefit from a non-organic malady, such a going ‘blind’ after witnessing a murder. In Secondary Morbid Gain, a patient gains an external benefit, e.g. avoiding military conscription. In Tertiary Morbid Gain, third parties share in the benefit of a non-organic illness – such as, in this case, the Priest’s Wife and Flock feeling good, and gaining meaning in their lives, by caring for the wheelchair-bound Priest.

So, plenty of fascinating debate about FND, but here’s the thing…all neurologist readers found it self-evident that the Parable was a thinly-veiled description of the FND battle, with the Wise Man as the main character.

Moreover, they took it for granted that finding a neutral way to describe and stimulate this debate must have been the original intent of the author.

The very same author who’d only just heard of the existence of the FND debate.

Feminists/Priest’s Wife

Feminist friends, and their feminist friends, were equally convinced the Parable was all about the Priest’s Wife.

Placing her at the centre of the parable was about the only point on which they could agree. There was fierce debate about what her support of her husband’s ‘fake’ illness symbolised. Some thought it made her a weak woman, others saw her as an exemplar of strength.

The former saw the Priest’s Wife as a clear victim of female oppression, gaslit by her coercive husband, and patriarchal community, into a life of servitude.

The latter, however, cast her as a subtle exponent of female tricksterism. She alone amongst the Flock shared the Wise Man’s insight in the true state of things. This provided her with a way to assert control over her husband, and her life, as he had become completely dependent on her.

But again, the feminist readers responses didn’t question the subject of the Parable. For them, not only was the Priest’s Wife clearly the central protagonist, but they were kind enough to praise the insight of the author in constructing such an ingenious vehicle, designed to trigger debate on a key Post-Feminist philosophical battleground.

Religious Believers/Priest

Readers of religious faith didn’t provide unsolicited feedback. Whether this was because few of the readers were religious, or because religious readers were reluctant to draw a positive moral from the role of the Priest in this parable, was impossible to tell.

After the reactions from the Wise Man and Priest’s Wife tribes, however, the author sought out people of faith for their reactions. As diplomatically as possible, they were asked for their readings of the parable.

Those who responded couched their reactions in cautious abstractions about the difficulty of divining God’s will, or the complexity of human faith.

The blandness of their remarks made it hard to be sure if they were just looking for something polite to say.

But all their responses presumed the Priest was the central character, and his reaction to his malady was the ‘point’ of the story.

Social Workers/Wheelchair

Most surprising of all was the reaction of friends who worked in the field of advocacy, research and care for adults with learning difficulties.

They generated the greatest amount of analysis of all. The focus of their attention was not the Wise Man, the Priest’s Wife or the Priest, but the Wheelchair.

From their perspective, the Parable of the Paralysed Priest was a pithy summary of the debate raging in their field, of how to assign ‘capacity’ to adults with learning difficulties.

Should they be treated, as far as possible, as responsible adults who knew their own minds, and could make decisions for themselves?

Or is it more compassionate to take a more ‘medicalised’ position, and while giving them the opportunity of taking decisions for themselves, ‘guide’ them towards taking the ‘right’ ones?

Here’s what one researcher in the field wrote in their feedback:

I’ve read it through a few times and also feel a bit baffled. The first time I read it I thought he might be playing with perceptions of disability as unquestionably ‘undesirable’. To elect to be disabled goes against the norm – but the Priest has found something more attractive in this new space/embodiment?

But then I started to think about his wife pushing the chair! Although she says she is glad, the priest’s seemingly chosen dependency has an impact on others.

The biggest risk I can think of is that people might not engage with a  discussion of desire and disability and instead over simplify/reduce to the dreaded PIP/ benefits assessment discourse on whether or not some disabled people are exaggerating as a means of avoidance or indeed able to better control any physical symptoms. 

Another shared their confusion on the ‘moral’ of the parable, but for different reasons.

I felt similarly about the story and unsure of the meaning.  I have some concerns: the priest taking to a wheelchair has got him the love of the people around him; the priest however is found to not really need the chair; by keeping him in the chair he is assured of the continued love of people so why rock the boat. The story is therefore problematic unless it is about how using a wheelchair is not a curse because the priest is loved!

And one more baffled reader:

I have just read this for the third time, and I have to admit to being baffled. I’m unsure what the message is intended to be.

Here is my understanding. 

The priest has taken to a wheelchair even though his wife and the wise man know (How?) that he can walk. All agree to continue with the subterfuge. Why is the priest taking to a wheelchair? And why is everyone colluding with him?

Baffling, so until I understand the import of the tale, I cannot comment on the disability politics front.

For these readers, the personality of the Priest in the wheelchair was less significant than the label of disability label conferred on him by the wheelchair.

But again, they were in no doubt about the reason the parable was written, and many were kind enough to congratulate the author on finding such an elegant way to communicate this social worker’s hot potato.

The ‘Right’ Answer

And what about the original storyteller, the source of all this speculation? Surely he must have known what the story was ‘really’ about.

Dr. Gerald Stern died in 2018, three years before his son wrote the Parable of the Paralysed Priest, so we can’t know for sure.

For what it’s worth, his son remembers being told this anecdote on a couple of different occasions when he was in this early teens. His recollection now of what he thought the point of the story was at the time, was a self-deprecatory cautionary tale.

It was told, he reckoned, to illustrate the limits of human understanding in general, and of the role of a consultant neurologist in particular. Even high-status experts to whom everyone defers don’t always know the ‘right’ answer.

We See What We Want To See

The power of parable lies in the way it permits us to read what we want to into these simple stories.

Stripped of signposts such as adjectives and adverbs, parables leave plenty of space for discretion, room for manoeuvre, blank space to fill in with our own preoccupations and biases.

It feels like a Zen trick – the more you remove, the more you create.  The smaller you make something, the more space it occupies.

Modern behavioural psychology has come up with plenty of new research and labels for this phenomenon, like ‘confirmation bias’ or ‘nudge theory’, but of course storytellers have known this for as long as stories have been told.

Know your audience. Frame the question. Elicit the response you want.

The Emperor’s New Clothes, Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Walter Mitty, Dickens’s pantheon of self-deluded archetypes…writers of fiction are all too familiar with this essential human trait, along with those who exploit it, and point it out and laugh.

All these stories spring from the same human frailty – we’d rather cling to wishful thinking, than face inconvenient truths.

Finally, the connection to effective climate action

In the end, this is what we think is the real ‘message’ of the Parable of the Paralysed Priest.

Our reluctance to accept things we’d prefer not to be true lies at the heart of our climate crisis. As a species, we’ve known the theory of the Greenhouse Effect for more than a century. We’ve known its reality since the 70s. Since the 70s we’ve had the technology to keep fossil fuels in the ground, but lacked the political will to implement it.

We’ve always been able, and still can, rise from our wheelchair, but we prefer being in it, and so does everyone around us.

But this is where the parable fails, or needs an addendum.

What happens when the Priest in the wheelchair is careening towards a cliff edge? How does that change the story?

It’s fair to observe that this reading of the Parable of the Paralysed Priest reflects our own obsessions, interests and perspective.

But does that make it any less true?