A good and rich life
All images used with permission.
There was a time when Shane Clifton had almost lost hope of living a life of meaning and purpose. In October 2010, at the age of 39, the husband and father-of-three rode a pushbike off a skate ramp into a foam pit, sustaining an injury that left him with quadriplegia. It’s a scene he has recounted many times in the years since, including in his memoir, Husbands Should Not Break.
“On the way down I remember that feeling of my stomach making its way to my throat, and of having time to look ahead at the jump and wonder... ‘am I mad?’ But the foam looked soft and I was committed, so down, up, and down again ... headfirst,” he writes in the memoir, which is a brutally honest account of his struggles to adjust to life with a disability.
“I knew straight away that I’d broken my neck. There was no temporary unconsciousness, no moment of wondering why my arms and legs wouldn’t respond, just a flash of nightmarish insight. I knew my life was irrevocably changed.”
The realisation of how life would change happened later, when he returned home after seven months of recovery and rehabilitation.
“I think when you’re in hospital, you’re imagining life is going to get better when you get home,” says Professor Clifton, a theologian who received his PhD from Australian Catholic University (ACU) in 2005. “Then you get home and you’re confronted with the magnitude of all you’ve lost.”
One of his greatest challenges was coming to terms with the way the injury changed his relationships. Before the accident, he was a physically active parent, a surfer dad who engaged in “parenting-by-play”.
“So how do you parent anymore when suddenly the way in which you related to your kids is taken away from you?” says Professor Clifton, who was raised on the NSW south coast.
“It’s pretty devastating because the losses are substantial, and they’re all you can see at that point in time. It really does take quite a few years, I think, that adjustment process after a spinal cord injury.”
Search for meaning
Shane Clifton became a Pentecostal Christian at the age of 16, and then followed in his father’s footsteps to study economics and forge a career as a chartered accountant.
An “early mid-life crisis” in his twenties led him to a theology degree. He went on to obtain a Doctor of Philosophy at ACU, and launched into a new career as a scholar of theology and ethics.
“There was a sense of dissatisfaction with accounting, and a strong desire to feel like you’re giving your life to something worthwhile and meaningful,” says Professor Clifton, who worked for the accounting firm Price Waterhouse for six years before moving into theology.
“It’s interesting because if I knew then what I know now, perhaps I wouldn’t have made the same decision to leave accounting. Nonetheless, it led me on a path that has proved to be challenging, but also quite rich.”
After graduating from ACU, Professor Clifton spent two decades teaching at Alphacrucis College, where he became a Professor of Theology and Ethics.
In his early years as a theologian, his scholarly work was mainly on various aspects of Pentecostalism, including the book Globalization and the Mission of the Church, which he co-authored with ACU’s Professor Neil Ormerod.
Since his spinal cord injury, he has re-focused his research on exploring the relationship between disability and conceptions of the good life.
He has written on ableism in academia, disability and virtue ethics, the problematic role of prayer in healing, and a compelling autoethnographic account of spinal cord injury as an experience of grief.
“All of the elements of grief – the anger, the loss, the sadness, the inability to move forward, the fluctuating emotions – are a part of the experience of spinal cord injury,” he says.
“It feels like the death of your body, the death of your relationships. It has some advantages to grief because I’m still alive, so it’s certainly not the same thing, but I think as a whole the process of experiencing it and the process of adjustment is pretty similar.”
Sustaining a spinal cord injury is a stark reminder that life can be “wild, crazy and uncontrollable”, he adds. And like grief, its challenges cannot be overcome with sheer will.
“You’ve just got to allow it to be, and to navigate through its ups and downs,” says Professor Clifton, who co-founded the iCare-funded program Engage, which assists people to find meaning and purpose after spinal cord injury.
“Just like grief, we can get through these things, and maybe ten years down the track, you might find you can live well and enjoy life. You still miss things – the loss of sexuality or the ability to go for a surf – but they’re not all-encompassing in the same way they were.”
But what about his faith? Has his spinal cord injury changed his relationship with Christianity?
Professor Clifton and two of his children.
“For quite a few years, when people asked that, I’d answer ‘no’,” he says.
“But over time I’ve come to realise that it has changed my faith experience. It’s caused me to question things harder. It’s caused me to experience more doubt. But it’s also caused me to be more open to the world than I ever was before. I am still taken up by the notion of God’s grace, the divine presence that reveals goodness, beauty and hope in difficult times.”
The good life
Since late 2019, Professor Clifton has worked as Assistant Director of the Disability Royal Commission, established in response to community concern about the mistreatment of people with a disability.
He says the role confronts him daily with the fact that many people with disabilities “continue to experience exclusion, continue to be ignored and disempowered, and in the worst cases, have been subjected to horrific forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation”.
“Every day is a learning exercise,” says Professor Clifton, who is also an Honorary Professor at the Centre of Disability Research and Policy. “Sometimes that learning is pretty depressing because you’re focusing on violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. But it’s also pretty empowering to see the way people navigate trauma and still manage to flourish.”
He believes the proper way to help people with disability is encompassed in the disability rights movement’s slogan, “Nothing about us without us”.
“The way to help people with disability is to empower them to make decisions for themselves.”
He is “proudly disabled”, and describes disability as “an expression of human diversity and vulnerability and strength”.
“It’s been a very rich experience to meet so many different people with disability – I’ve made some great friendships and learnt so much,” he says.
“In my life I have reaped the benefits of what was achieved by the people who came before me, who tied themselves to buses and trains and raided institutions and took photos of the terrible conditions and actually started to rethink disability.
Shane and wife Elly.
“You look back at the world since then and you see some fantastic change, so there’s a lot to be thankful for.”
As for his own journey towards an acceptance of his injury, he prefers that it not be labelled as “inspirational”. Nor would he want his life to be recounted as an endless series of successes; there have been many failures, too, and there are ongoing challenges.
But more than a decade after the freak accident that changed his body, and changed his life, Shane Clifton can report that, “on the whole, life is good”.
“I feel pretty positive about life – or no more or less positive than most other people,” he says.
“I still experience the same limitations as others, I experience pain and various other challenges, but surprisingly, things are okay. I am loved by family and friends and surrounded by a beautiful world. If I can use the skills I’ve developed to help a few people along the way, at the end of it, it’ll be a good and rich life.”
Professor Shane Clifton is the winner of the Research/Scholarship Award ACU’s Alumni Awards 2021.