Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Opinions Are Like...

I was asked my opinion on an issue that a local news outlet had posted.  The article centered on the topics of physical accessibility, human dignity, and financial responsibility. Those subjects were offered in the context of the needs of one student with a medical condition. My introduction to the article was a big headline about a lawsuit with a primary visual being the offending building and a secondary, smaller, poorly composed image of a student that appeared to be harvested from a social media channel.  The bias was immediately established.

Issues aside, the thing that smacked me in the face were the responses that people offered on the motives, needs, and realities of physical difference in our society.  If a society is truly judged by how it cares for the least of its members, then this small society of opinions is doomed.   Now, I know better than to ask a crowd a complex question, and while Malcom Gladwell takes pride in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds”, I see crowds as inherently, generally, foolish.  

I decided to take each response apart in terms of the value that it was seeking to support and found that my crowd was using the same logic that one might use when shopping for a used car.  Cost was the main driver (this accessibility issue is the price of an elevator) and that cost was evaluated against a larger bet of value-over-time, just like car shopping. Imagine the questions that come to mind when shopping for a used car: “does Sally really need such a new car?  Can she simply take the bus?  It’s only got to get her through high school and high schoolers don’t take care of anything”. My favorite: “I didn’t have a car in high school, she doesn’t need one either”.

I considered each of the value statements that the opinions offered; thought of them in terms of Bethany.  Bethany can take the bus. Bethany should use the stairs. I’m a whiner if I think Bethany should have an elevator; I should teach her to walk independently. Bethany should simply get used to functioning in society with her disability. It costs too much to support Bethany in our cash-strapped society.  I added the last opinion but given the direction the crowd was going, it’s only a matter of time before we got there.  People love Bethany but if they knew the annual cost to support her and if they amortized those cost over 10 years, their love may depreciate as quickly as the value of the used car they were considering buying. 

The article spoke briefly of living with dignity, made a brave mention of the student wanting to “be like everyone else” but the author had already inflicted too much damage and the likelihood of these feeble markers carrying any credible influence was already shot.   In short, the author unknowingly created a mob.  We’re all like that author; we create mobs every day by evaluating life with the same value streams that we use to evaluate Coke or Pepsi, choose gas from Mobil or Speedway, buy expensive shoes or cheap ones.  We assume that for a price, we can make things normal or we should get exactly what we pay for.  We construct complete models of the future in our minds that rely on the assumption that we understand what others go through every day of their lives because we know someone “like that”.  We soften it with statements like “we all carry silent burdens” and “pain is relative”.  We make decisions based on what we know, not on what we believe.  I too am guilty of this with my opinion on the article reflecting what I know AND what I believe:

I know of no braver individuals than those who live with disability.  I know of no other species that has learned to live with the reality of their condition more than those who “can-not”.  I know of no other people-group who deserves our attention more, not because of their need but because of our need to learn the lessons that they know.

I believe that we are all created equal.  I believe that love shows no boundaries.  I believe that there is more happening around us than we’re aware of.  I believe that we are capable of great things that edify the disabled, prosper society, and solidify our values in actions if we put our minds and hearts towards those efforts.  And lastly, I believe we have a long way to go.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Being Fed With Stone Soup

The quiet surgeon went on to explain how his life had gone from being the doctor to being the patient in a span of about 60 minutes.  One moment he’s a surgeon doing what he believed God had designed him to do, the next moment he’s looking at his own x-rays which reveal that he’s now a cancer victim with less than 3 years life expectancy.  Somehow, at the end of all this he was able to say “I thank God for the cancer”. 

From that sobering testimony, the pastor turned to face a tent full of individuals who have their own sobering realities stuffed into bodies that are “imperfect” by conventional standards.  He was able to face them and with words that defy logic, speak how each developmental difference was in fact more special than different, more a gift than a curse.  That one set me back a bit.  The tent was alive with human movement but little of it would be welcomed as special in most of the world.  Jesus’s absurd metaphor came to mind, the one where he says “no loving father would give a stone or a snake to a hungry child who asks for bread”.  None of the people in this tent asked to be here, none asked to have the dis-abilities that they carry.  Most have prayed not to be cured but perhaps to limp a little bit less.  Most of their caregivers prayed not for healing but for relief and from what I could see at the moment, the answer to the prayer seemed to be conditional.  The enormity of it all began to overwhelm me as I sat there with a broken daughter on my left, a heartbroken, widowed father on my right, and my still-exhausted wife cautiously handing fruit snacks across an empty seat to my left-hooking daughter.

I looked across the noisy tent and boldly used the word dis-ability in my mind as I wrestled with this.  I tried developmental difference and while it felt less offending a term, I knew that it was only putting a nicer face on an ugly reality.  These people were broken and the broken-est one was sitting right next to me trying to punch her mother. 

Then I saw his face.  The young man was a visitor and he too suffered from dis-ability.  He was dancing around with joy as he held onto a vacuum cleaner, dancing and running and pushing the thing like it was the greatest invention that life could offer.  One of the other broken people knew that this man loved vacuum cleaners and brought it to the tent for the sole purpose of affording him this joy.  Then again, I saw his face.  I looked at his eyes from 30 feet away and I saw absolutely nothing.  I saw no pain, I saw no confusion, I saw nothing but gentle love for everything that he encountered.  I closed my eyes and listened to the cacophony around me for a moment, trying for the life of me to reconcile it with the thought of someone asking for the snakes or stones.  I couldn’t logically connect the two, surely no one would ask for this.

Again, I saw his eyes.  He’d moved further into the tent, having surrendered the vacuum cleaner for two plastic rattles; the props had changed but the eyes were the same – full of gentle love for whatever he was encountering.  Something about those eyes and the fact that they were here at this point in MY time was starting to mesh. I nearly laughed as the image of Charleston Hesston playing the movie role of Judah Ben Hur popped into my mind: “I know this man”!  My silly mind made a dramatic, Hollywood connection – those eyes.  I was beginning to wonder if those two people were destined to travel all this way simply to teach me a non-verbal lesson?  That lesson was becoming clearer each time I saw his eyes. 

Somehow his soft expression taught me that it’s not my job to understand broken-ness.  It’s not my job to fix broken-ness.  It’s not my job to judge broken-ness.  The only job I had was to be here in this tent, on this evening, with these people, for this moment.  My job was to see this young man’s eyes – to see his mother’s smile and to know that of all the broken things in this tent, I was the broken-est.  Me, not Bethany, not the surgeon, not the visitor, me.  His eyes were perfect, mine were occluded.  His eyes taught me that all are broken, even the perfect one was broken and I was guilty of having begun to look at the world “with and not through the eye”. 

This tent on that night became the most beautiful place on earth because to be broken is to surrender to a power that is far greater than mine.  The people in this tent know that surrender and they feel this power; they’ve mastered seeing through the eye and they know that  “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me”.