Pacific North West
Drawn by author: Felicity Ray Self
I am ashamed. I am ashamed because I have only given blood once in my entire adult life. I am forty-eight years old and eligible to donate blood since I was seventeen, which means I have had thirty-one years in which I could have given blood. And I know the importance: a single donation can save up to three lives. Friends and co-workers have donated blood freely and often. I have no health reasons holding me back. I work in the field of special education helping people overcome daily challenges, have been involved in homeless outreach, and volunteered for years teaching English to new Americans. Overall I seem to be a caring and giving person. What is holding me back from giving in this one area of my life? Why am I so selfish when it comes to my blood?
“Selfish” may sound like a rather strong word to use, but thinking back to the only time I gave blood, it is the word that fits how I was feeling. As I lay there, strapped to a needle, squeezing a rubber ball in my hand, watching my blood being collected like a commodity to be packaged, cooled, and sent off to strangers, I suddenly became possessive of that blood. As soon as that thought entered my head, it was followed by a sense of guilt and shame for feeling that way.
“You’re being really selfish here,” I thought.
A voice in my head responded, “It’s not really yours to give.”
I felt conflicted about my experience. Whose blood was it really? And why was I feeling so confused about it?
A few weeks later I received my Red Cross card in the mail. I found out that I had a rare blood type that was in short supply, so I soon started to get regular calls from the Red Cross asking me to come back and donate again. I never went back. Since then I have been struggling to truly understand why. Was I just selfish? Was there a deeper reason? Could it have something to do with being raised a Jehovah’s Witness? I thought I had left that part of my life far behind me, but it seems that my adult ideas about blood, what it stands for, and who it belongs to were deeply and intrinsically linked to my childhood experiences in this religious group.
I have a vivid childhood memory of attending a Memorial of Christ’s Death service, which is held each year in the Jehovah’s Witness tradition. The sacraments are rejected and refused; no one partakes of the cup or eats the unleavened bread. The grape juice and crackers, the implements that represent the atoning blood and body of Jesus Christ, are passed from person to person. Everyone in attendance holds the cup and the plate for a second before passing it on, until every single person has had a chance to reject the symbols of eternal life. Children also participated, as we had been trained and taught from infancy that this blood was not shed for us. We could not partake because this symbol of blood that leads to eternal life was only for 144,000 so-called “anointed ones” that did not include us. There would be no eternal soul for us; we were not worthy.
As a child passing those crackers and wine to the next person, I always deeply wanted to rebel. I thought, “I have a right to this. I should just do it anyway. Who are they to tell me I can’t?” I wanted to defy them and watch the shock on their faces, but I never had the nerve. I did rebel as a teenager and rejected the religion and its teachings, but I did not tell my mother. I began sneaking out my bedroom window at night to join my friend at her Baptist church. The only thing Jehovah’s Witnesses had to offer me in their version of Paradise was eternally petting a variety of wild animals under an eternally shining sun with a basket of fruit balanced on my head. That sounded great when I was ten, but as I grew up I wanted so much more. For the first time in my life I had hope for an eternal soul. I was finally able to partake in sharing the blood that promised eternal life.
Many years later my mother was told that she needed an operation for a bowel obstruction and would have to take blood during the surgery, or she would only have a small chance to survive. While she was deliberating about undergoing the operation, the bowel obstruction cleared on its own. However, she had already decided that she was going to refuse blood during surgery. I shook my head in disgust and disbelief that she would refuse to take blood and save her life. But she had been conditioned for years to believe that she was not worthy of Christ’s blood. If she was not worthy of supernatural blood to save her eternal soul, what would make her believe that she was worthy of earthly blood that could at least save her temporary, mortal body? If the divine was off limits to her, why would the mundane matter? Without eternal life, what does the gift of life do but prolong inevitable annihilation?
So here was the source of my internal struggle to answer the question “Whose blood is it anyway?” I could not bring myself to give my blood away again because I had always thought of it as mine. What I have come to believe as an adult is that my blood does not belong to me. It does not belong to the Red Cross. It, and the life it provides me, belongs to the One Who Gave Me Life. Blood is both symbolically and literally Life.
The giving and receiving of blood is an act of free will. What we have been so freely given, may we freely give. I no longer feel I am sharing my blood when I go to the Red Cross and make a donation. I am not giving anything away that was not mine to give or keep in the first place. By sharing my blood, I get something much greater in exchange; I get to participate in the Gift of Life itself. That does not mean that I still won’t need some juice and cookies afterwards; after all, as long as I am on the earth, I am only human.
FELICITY RAY SELF was born deep in the heart of the Ozarks in the early 1970’s. She spent her childhood and early adult life as a vagabond, traversing back and forth across the great US of A meeting people and hearing their stories and memorizing trivial bits of information. She earned her bread by the sweat of her brow, becoming a jack of all trades and a master of few. She attended an institution of higher learning where she learned to jump through hoops and tell the powers that be what they wanted to hear. She currently lives in a quaint Pacific Northwest town where she is preparing to write the allusive “Great American Novel.”