Wednesday, December 03, 2008

let him be as one that serves

Summer was dead, but autumn had not yet been born when the ibis came to the bleeding tree.....

Sean had to read The Scarlet Ibis today and answer questions on it for his Language Arts class at high school. He asked me if I'd read it and said "it was about someone a little like Aidan". From this particular teenager, that is as much as to say that it made an impression on him. So I went and looked it up.... it's a very short story, and the link above contains the whole text.

Today, I understand, is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities so I wonder if Sean's teacher (or the book he is using for Language Arts) planned the timing. According to this study site, the story of the Scarlet Ibis "explores the conflicts between love and pride and draws attention to the effects of familial and societal expectations on those who are handicapped".

On December 3, 2000, Pope John Paul II gave a homily on the Jubilee of the Disabled. He said:

In your bodies and in your lives, dear brothers and sisters, you express an intense hope of redemption. In all this is there not an implicit expectation of the "redemption" that Christ won for us by his death and resurrection? Indeed, every person marked by a physical or mental difficulty lives a sort of existential "advent", waiting for a "redemption" that will be fully manifest, for him as for everyone, only at the end of time. Without faith, this waiting can be tinged with disappointment and discouragement; supported by Christ's word, it becomes a living and active hope.
Looking at Aidan, I often think how bright he is. Every few minutes he comes to tell me something he's accomplished. "I made a G!" "I put all the numbers in order!" His day is a succession of victories, and he brightens our days with his sense of humor and his buoyant interest in life. Who could resist his charm? Yes, he is cognitively disabled. He is nine years old and these milestones are usually accomplished in the 5th or 6th year. It seems irrelevant though except when he is compared to others in his age group.

I am not trying to be simplistic about the difficulties of having a disability or taking care of someone who is disabled. Of course, there are many struggles, and there is also a spectrum of disabilities. Some are cognitively normal but physically disabled, like the author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (a beautifully written book by a man who was completely paralyzed by a stroke -- he communicated by blinking, and each word of the memoir took about 2 minutes to accomplish). Some are physically and cognitively fine but have behavior problems, and so on.

I don't mean to minimize the sorrows or difficulties. I mean to say that the comparisons (the narrator in the short story was concerned his disabled little brother would be a school failure) can add a burden not necessary. In the story:

"Aw, come on, Doodle. You can do it. Do you want to be different from everybody else when you start school?"

"Does that make any difference?"

"It certainly does. Now, come on."

There is a good kind of expectation and a destructive kind. One is a"living and active hope", a willingness to work and watch and wait for progress. The tragic kind, it seems to me, is the kind that holds a bar or standard that is disassociated from the other person's reality. It comes from pride in appearances, and a desire to control, and as in the story, it can lead to hurt and damage.

Advent probably is a good time to reflect on how the wrong kinds of expectations can be a kind of distraction, and a destructive force. Pope Benedict says in today's homily:

“In the language of the Church the word Advent has two meanings: presence and expectation. Presence, the light is present. Christ is the new Adam, he is with us and among us. Already the light shines and we must open our heart to see the light. But Advent also means expectation. The dark night of evil is still strong. Therefore, we pray..."
Presence and expectation -- Maria Montessori taught:

There are two sins, in particular, which tend to distort our true vision of the child. They are pride and anger. Hence humility and patience- their opposites are the virtues most needed by the would-be directress.

...She (the directress) must study how to purify her heart and render it burning with charity towards the child. She must put on humility ; and, above all, learn how to serve. She must learn how to appreciate and gather in all those tiny and delicate manifestations of the opening life in the child s soul. Ability to do this can only be attained through a genuine inner effort towards self-perfection....

This is no less true of the child with disabilities than of the "typical" child, if there really were such a thing. With that approach of humility -- the expectancy and vigilance to serve -- one becomes aware of the presence of Christ in the child, and one is less tempted by the flaws of pride and anger that in the Scarlet Ibis seemed iconized by frequent visuals of crimson and blood. Montessori often quoted Our Lord's words:

"He that would be the greatest amongst you, let him be as one that serves."

I also think of the Gospel from the November 23 mass readings, which though they are familiar to me made a deep impression:

`Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'
It may sound like I am saying that disabled children are "less" but of course, I am using the phrase in the way that Jesus used it. He did not mean that the people we are to serve are truly less valuable, but that they are too often less valued. The potential of a child is greater than our own, but a child is vulnerable in a way adults are not. Montessori taught:

On the other hand the adult, who lives continually in the presence of small children, is without this social control. They are so young and in experienced that they take everything the adult says and does for granted having no standard of comparison. Thus they do not reflect back to the teacher his own defects. It is therefore, says Dr. Montessori, a real relief to be able to mix with people who are incapable of defending themselves or recognizing our shortcomings. Such a situation naturally tends to develop a certain type of character...

Small children have had so little experience that they will even justify the teacher s actions at their own expense. They will believe themselves to be in the wrong, when they are not really so at all, just because the teacher has (unjustly) accused them.

Again, the Scarlet Ibis vividly depicts this vulnerability along with its strength, as when the narrator's young brother has pity on the ibis even though his brother is not demonstrating the same compassion in regard to him.

Let me remember presence and expectancy, humility and patience, service and vigilance, during this Advent season!


Laura A said...

Good thoughts for anyone taking care of a child today. Thanks, Willa!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Willa. Along the same vein is Jean Vanier's "From Brokenness to Community". I haven't read it all yet but receive daily quotes from it and he talks about accepting the disabled as people first quite eloquently. One of my favourites...

"Communion means accepting people just as they are, with all their limits and inner pain, but also with their gifts and their beauty and their capacity to grow: to see the beauty inside of all the pain. To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: “You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.” "

- Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, p.16

Stephanie said...

Oh, my, Willa. You've wrung my heart this morning. When I read the quote,

"Does that make any difference?"
"It certainly does. Now, come on."

then I hear the kind of fierce protection coming from someone who has felt the brunt of just why it makes a difference. This makes me cry (and I wonder at myself because - who was I protecting in the times in my life when I was that character?)

The Montessori quote is a thing of beauty. Child As Opponent (if not outright Enemy) is the most heinous part of our modern notions. Thank you for this post.

And God bless the little children - no matter how old. We're all disabled and helpless really, after all. Maybe that's why we have so much of a problem with the ones who can't hide it.

Willa said...

When I read the quote,

"Does that make any difference?"
"It certainly does. Now, come on."

then I hear the kind of fierce protection coming from someone who has felt the brunt of just why it makes a difference.

I hadn't thought of it quite that way, Stephanie, so thanks for bringing it out. Yes, the older brother's protectiveness and shame are so closely mingled it is difficult to extricate them.

Certainly it's hard to tell how much of our concern for "differences" comes from our desire to protect someone we love from hurt because of those differences, and how much is a sort of fear of being disgraced. Very difficult to discern. I think it involves a purifying process which is certainly an ongoing process and makes me, at least realize my own brokenness and inadequacy as well as the problems with the wider world's perception of the "different".

Susan, I've read Jean Vanier too. ... I think it must have been in quotes in different books because I don't think I've ever read a whole book of his. He talks of the "mysterious power hidden in the powerless.....People with a mental handicap are prophetic.....(they) continue to disturb and challenge us, calling us to deeper faith and courage. .... If we are to remain prophetic, we are to remain weak and little. We must allow the strength and wisdom of God to manifest itself in our weakness so that the weak show us the path of Love."

A man who had a severely disabled younger brother wrote a book called The Power of the Powerless: A Brother's Legacy of Love that I read many, many years ago. Even though Aidan hadn't been born it made a deep difference in my life and how I thought about giving birth even with the uncertainty of whether the child would be born healthy and all that (something that used to bother me deeply in my earlier years as a mother).

I found a ZENIT article called Handicapped are Teachers of Civilization of Love, Says Jean Vanier. Just the title is thought-provoking, and the article says more in the same line of thought that you brought out. Thanks for reminding me, Susan!