I would like you to meet Rick Johnson. Rick is a 38-year-old man from Madison, Wisconsin. While I was a college student I had the chance to work with Rick for a year. In that short time Rick taught me some important life lessons. He taught me about the need for patience and hope. He showed me the meaning of a genuine, mature, and self-giving love. He taught me what it means to be human.
You may be thinking that Rick is a philosophy professor I met at school. Or, maybe he is a professional counselor, or perhaps he is a priest at my local parish.
He is none of these things. Rick is a severely retarded man who’s been deaf, speechless and confined to a wheelchair since birth, and for whom I was fortunate to be able to care during one life-changing year.
In college I worked for a number of agencies that assisted persons with developmental disabilities. Essentially, I helped people with intellectual or physical disabilities live their daily lives. This meant different things in different situations. Working for Rick, I cooked meals, assisted him with his daily routine, including direct bathroom care, and helped him with his daily chores.
My main task, however, was to be Rick’s friend–to have fun with him, and to try and help him develop socially and live a happy life. This was not difficult. Rick was happy most of the time. In fact, many of my college friends would visit me at work when I was with Rick. I soon realized they weren’t really there to hang out with me but to see Rick, and to experience his warmth and compassion. When I would come to stay with Rick on weekends, we would go to the movies or to the pet store, play basketball, or just take a trip to the park. As I saw it, I was making a difference in his life–teaching him and helping him grow.
So it seemed paradoxical to discover, as anyone who spends significant time with a person with a disability will, that he taught me much more than I could ever offer him. For this I am grateful.
In the current debate over the pulling of feeding tubes and aborting of disabled children, two points are often overlooked. First, it is not our capabilities that make us human, but our humanness itself. What many fail to see is that human existence is an accomplishment and purpose in itself: not a means to an end, but a beautiful and intrinsic end. Always and without exception.
That said, we cannot ignore the profound contributions that the disabled and aged offer to the lives of those around them and, indeed, to society in general.
What Rick and all people with disabilities have to offer is something invaluable in today’s world. They can teach us how to love, and, thus, how to live.
Perhaps the only thing they can do is to receive the loving service of their family and those who care for them, as was the case with Terri Schiavo. But the deep, self-giving love that people with disabilities require allows those around them to learn the intrinsic value of service to others, of bearing another’s burdens, of unconditional love. People with disabilities awaken our hearts because in order to care for them properly, we must do more. Our hearts must enlarge for them or the love dies, and often they die.
In a time where superficial, selfish and exploitative relationships have become the norm for many people–as evidenced by all-time-high rates of divorce, domestic abuse, depression and suicide—people with disabilities force us to do more. They force us to grow to a more profound understanding and living out of authentic love.
An authentic love is by its nature self-giving and patient. It is a love that is certainly demanding. But this is precisely the source of its beauty. By the very fact that it is demanding it builds the true good of man and allows it to radiate to others.
An authentic love is open and vulnerable to its subject, and that love becomes the source of mutual joy, happiness, and growth. Loving the disabled is not simply about doing good deeds but also about being open and vulnerable to them in order not only to give love but to receive the genuine love that they yearn to express. We must celebrate their lives with them, not look upon them with sad eyes, but let them know that they are a source of joy for others.
What do the vulnerable have to offer? They will change us. They will call us to be people of mutual trust; they will help us to learn how to listen. They will call us out of our individualism, break down our prejudices, and help us sustain our relationships. It is all of these characteristics of love that are brought out when one encounters a person with a disability, and it is also the type of love that is required in all of our relationships with our spouses, family, friends, co-workers, etc. It is a love that is sadly lacking in our culture.
We need to rediscover this authentic, self-giving love in all areas, and we can learn it from the disabled, just as I learned it from Rick.
The disabled will help us discover our common humanity, liberate us from self-centered, disordered notions of love and begin the process of truly becoming human.
Daniel Allott is a writer for American Values, a DC-area public policy organization.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire