Someone I know, in the wake of a painful loss in his life, veered in a new career direction. He took a job working with Steven, a man with severe disabilities which make him totally dependent on around-the-clock care. Although the work is challenging and constant, in an ironic twist of fate this new relationship has brought with it the promise of healing and restoration.
This reminded me of Henry Nouwen, a Dutch priest and author of many well-known Christian titles, who wrote a book entitled Adam: God’s Beloved, about his experience working with a man living with profound disabilities in the community of L’Arche Daybreak. Henry moved into L’Arche Daybreak Community in 1986, where he would serve as pastor for 10 years. L’Arche Daybreak Community was founded by Jean Vanier, a Canadian humanitarian who has received multiple awards and honours including the Order of Canada. He founded L’Arche after witnessing the distressing reality of life for institutionalized adults with disabilities. These communities, now located worldwide, create open, inclusive and compassionate societies in which each person is valued and can make a contribution. Assistants come from all over to live and work alongside its “core members” – adults living with a variety of intellectual and physical disabilities. Each person, regardless of ability, is a full and valued member of the community…all living in relationships of respect and learning.
During his time at L’Arche, Henry Nouwen was joined in relationship with Adam, and recounts his rich learning experience in his book. In caring for Adam day after day with dressing, washing and feeding, Henry learned of our mutual dependence on each other and that we must:
“choose to give our love when we are strong and to receive the love of others when we are weak, always with tranquility and generosity…Adam’s total dependence made it possible for him to live fully only if we lived in a loving community around him. His great teaching to us was, ‘I can live only if you surround me with love and if you love one another. Otherwise, my life is useless and I am a burden.’ Adam clearly challenged us to trust that compassion, not competition, is the way to fulfill our human vocation. This challenge forced us to reexamine all the basic assumptions of individual and action-oriented lives.” (p. 90,91)
Often I, as I’m sure you do as well, see pairs of people or groups of people walking together down the street, in the park, or towards the library. In the mix are those who are able-bodied and those who are not, those sitting in a wheelchair and those pushing from behind…those who may be speaking in words and those who may be speaking with their arms or other verbal utterances. I love watching them. In them I see the simplicity of human relationship; the giving and the receiving.
I do not believe that any greater Love purposefully intends for some of us to live with disabilities for some greater purpose.
I do not believe that those living with disabilities are intrinsically special or are angels sent from above to teach us; this view if anything, I think, belittles their humanity. I would tend to think that if those with disabilities had a choice, they might choose to live a healthy life….but maybe not! I cannot begin to assume I can speak for others living with these kinds of challenges. I, of course, think Cody is special, just like I think Jessica is. And, I can likely safely say on behalf of Cody that he doesn’t think he’s special…he just wakes up each morning and wants breakfast. He wants to have fun at school, enjoy the warm sun, be with the people he loves…and I’m sure he’d love to be able to see if he knew what sight was, and I know that he wishes he could speak. He does not want to be anybody’s angel or teacher or guide. He does not want to be special…he just wants to live his life as fully as he can.
What I do believe is that in this human life there are various challenges, in all forms, that are intrinsic to living. Many challenges are extremely unfair and extremely painful.
What I do believe is that no matter the challenge or disability, Grace and Beauty flow through them, and can be found in how we face them and how we care for one another.