Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: End of Summer Compilation

Last Friday was the final day of summer school, which meant it was my final day with Stan. That is, of course, until school starts back up in a few weeks.

As I look back on this summer, I have been hit with the mutual learning that has taken place. As I said earlier in this series, working with Stan, and my other special education students as well, is an exercise in co-learning. It is not just me teaching them; in many real ways I am taught just as much, if not more.

I’ve also been reflecting upon Jean Vanier’s life and work with the less-abled. Back during this past season of Lent, I shared Vanier’s seven aspects of love taken from his amazing book, Becoming Human. The more I marinate in his thoughts, the more I find truth deeply embedded within them. He is not a mere thinker, but is one who has given his life to those at the margins of society: the weak, the feeble, the downtrodden, the vulnerable.

I’d like to share some of these aspects again as they have been at the core of this little blogging project. It has been my conviction that the more we reveal, communicate, and celebrate those around us, the more we begin to live as God intends. Paradoxically, I have found Stan and his friends to be the ones who have taught me much about love, community, and forgiveness even as it seems I am the one doing the above things. There will never be a “Thank you” attached to the work I do with these students, but that does not negate the work my friends and I have given ourselves to. What it has done, however, is taught me the necessity of doing work regardless of it being noticed or not. Furthermore, I have learned the communication of thankfulness transcends the verbalization of the words, “Thank you.” There is a deeper sense of communication that takes place when you move beyond spoken language (especially when it is not available, as is the case with many of my students) and begin to know others through body language, moods, and actions. All of this re-learning takes patience and constancy: the bedrocks of love.

When I step back and am attentive enough, my eyes are open to their subtle revealing, communicating, and celebrating of me.

I pray as you read Vanier’s words below and examine the drawings of Stan that follow, you will ponder who it is in your life – perhaps someone unlikely – that you need to love through revealing, communicating, and celebrating.

To Reveal

The first aspect of love, the key aspect, is revelation…To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention…As soon as we start selecting and judging people instead of welcoming them as they are – with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses – are reducing life, not fostering it. When we reveal to people our belief in them, their hidden beauty rises to the surface where it may be more clearly seen by all.

To Communicate

Communication is at the heart of love…I have learned that the process of teaching and learning, of communication, involves movement, back and forth: the one who is healed and the one who is healing constantly change places. As we begin to understand ourselves, we begin to understand others. It is a part of the process of moving from idealism to reality, from the sky to the earth…We must learn to listen and then to communicate.

To Celebrate

It is not enough to reveal to people their value, to understand and care for them. To love people is to celebrate them…they need laughter and play, they need people who will celebrate life with them and manifest their joy of being with them.

Scan 9 Scan 10 Scan 11 Scan 12 Scan 13 Scan 14

For more in this series:

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: A Series Called “The Weather”

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: A Series Called “The Airport”

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: “Elephant”

Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: “Once Upon A Time” (An Unfinished Storybook)

 

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Beauty from the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”

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The artwork above is done by someone most people will not meet. It is a fireplace from a story kept in the mind of my friend. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call him “Stan.” Stan is my young friend who is categorized as a special education student. I have worked with him and he with me for the past couple of years. It is a relationship, not a mere job of one-way teaching and learning; ours has been a mutual journey. And this is the essence of a relationship. He has taught me much about life and love; I hope I have done the same.

He cannot always articulate what his needs are, seems to wander aimlessly while talking to himself, and has – on occasion – become physically aggressive.

However, he is one of the funniest, most practical, and beautiful people I have met. Yes, he by many “standards” will never be a productive citizen in our society. He might never have a public job. The future opening up before him has the potential to be ridden with institutions and medication. He may never be “put together” or “normal” or “fixed.” As Jean Vanier states,

Our society is geared to growth, development, progress. Life, for most of us, is a race to be won. Families are about evolution: at a certain stage, children are encouraged to leave home, get married, have children of their own, move on in their lives. But people with disabilities have no such future. Once they have reached a certain level of development, they are no longer expected or encouraged to progress. There is no ‘promotion’ for the disabled and what forward movement there is seems frequently to be either erratic or cruelly sped up: many move quite quickly from childhood to adulthood without passing through a period of adolescence; others age quickly. Our society is not set up to cope very well with people who are weaker or slower. More important, we are not skilled at listening to the wisdom of those whose life patterns are outside of the social norm.

And he shouldn’t be “fixed.” He is a person in this world and his existence alone is an overflow of the love of God. With persons who are less-abled, our imaginations tend to drift into the fixing and the functional. These aren’t terms for humans, but for machines. Humans aren’t dysfunctional. Machines are.

Persons are to be loved. Persons love and are loved.

Personhood involves a host of things, but perhaps at its core is the ability to give gifts. We all have areas where the love within us seeps out in myriad of ways. I recently read a profound assessment on prisons:

We affirm how precious our gifts are when we create prisons. Prison is a societal decision to take away your freedom and thereby is a place where we say you are not free to give your gifts. Taking away your capacity to give your gifts is the worst thing we can do to somebody. The opposite of freedom is that you cannot give your gifts. In prison, we will keep you alive – we will feed you, give you shelter and health care – but we will not allow you to give your gifts. – John McKnight and Peter Block, The Abundant Community, p. 110

I have worked the less-abled long enough to realize how frequently the focus is on problems, outbursts, and brokenness over beauty, love, and uniqueness. In many ways, we have given these children prison sentences with different names. This takes place when we relegate them to anything less than human in our descriptions, prescriptions, and alienation. In short, when we strip people of their gifts and gift-giving, we dehumanize.

This forced relinquishment of gifts ends in atomization. Rather than incorporating – literally making one body – people like Stan and his gifts into the community, we isolate and hide them. In a society based on power and privilege, the weak often get pushed to the margins – gifts and all. If one is deemed to be less than human, one cannot participate in community.

So what I am proposing to do?

This summer I will post a drawing of Stan’s once a week. This is his way of participating in community: his gift – his overflow of love – is his artistry. Having watched him draw for the past couple of years now, I can tell you that intentionality, attention to detail, and precision are at the front of his little mind. Nothing escapes the watchful eye of this artist. He does complete series of life events, portraits, and still-life. Each one unique in its own way.

I want to present them to you as gifts as he presents them to me as gifts. Again, for most of us, we will never see the beauty from the margins because of either our neglect, ignorance, or blindness. Is it possible to find and celebrate the wisdom, determination, and perspective in this unexpected place? I think it is.

I hope to open some eyes to the beauty found in perceived brokenness.

I hope to open some willing hands to the beauty of those living in homes down the street or across town.

I hope to open some hearts to the beauty lying dormant within themselves.

In the end, I hope to open some eyes to the beauty given in the gifts of my friend Stan.

“To be free is…”

To be a success, to be admired, means that we are competent in what we do. But for most of us, it’s not enough just to be good at something. True success, we feel, comes from the recognition of others. This desire for success and admiration can be a good thing, for it encourages us to work well and hard; however, such a desire for success can draw us away from acting justly and serving others.

To be free is to put justice, truth, and service to others over and above our own personal gain or our need for recognition, power, honour, and success. When we cling to personal power and success, when we are frightened of losing social status, then we are in some way denying our humanity; we become slaves to our own needs. We are not free.

Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p 108

The Difficult Place of Those Who Are Weaker – Jean Vanier: Day 27 of Lent

These are some wise, wise words from Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche Communities. As one who has worked with the less-abled for quite some time now, his insights into community have been invaluable. I strongly believe the following: those with disabilities have become a hidden population within our society and the Church has followed suit. In many ways, we have assumed influence comes from education and personal enlightenment. We have built communities where the voices, lives, and beauty of those who are seen as weak or are less-abled get relegated to our ministry life, but not our communal life. You are fine as the one we reach out to, but not as the ones we hold on to. Many factors go into this, but overall, in my experience, this has rung true. Vanier seems to agree.

The following extended quote is from his book Becoming Human, one of the books I am currently reading during Lent. If you are at all interested in community and belonging, this is a must read.

Those who are weak have great difficulty finding their place in society. The image of the ideal human as powerful and capable disenfranchises the old, the sick, the less-abled. For me, society must, by definition, be inclusive of the needs and gifts of all its members; how can we lay claim to making an open and friendly society where human rights are respected and fostered when, by the values we teach and foster, we systematically exclude segments of our population?

I also believe that those we most often exclude from the normal life of society, people with disabilities, have profound lessons to teach us. When we do include them, they add richly to our lives and add immensely to our world.

Our society is geared to growth, development, progress. Life, for most of us, is a race to be won. Families are about evolution: at a certain stage, children are encouraged to leave home, get married, have children of their own, move on in their lives. But people with disabilities have no such future. Once they have reached a certain level of development, they are no longer expected or encouraged to progress. There is no ‘promotion’ for the disabled and what forward movement there is seems frequently to be either erratic or cruelly sped up: many move quite quickly from childhood to adulthood without passing through a period of adolescence; others age quickly. Our society is not set up to cope very well with people who are weaker or slower. More important, we are not skilled at listening to the wisdom of those whose life patterns are outside of the social norm.

There is a lack of synchronicity between our society and people with disabilities. A society that honours only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak. It is as if to say: to be human is to be powerful.

Those who see the heart only as a place of weakness will be fearful of their own hearts. For them, the heart is a place of pain and anguish, of chaos and of transitory emotions. So they reject those who live essentially by their hearts, who cannot develop the same intellectual and rational capacities of others. People with intellectual abilities are excluded; it was never intended that they be included as equal partners with the powerful, you and me…We human beings have a great facility for living illusions, for protecting our self-image with power, for justifying it all by thinking we are the favoured ones of God.

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent

Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

Humility, Place, and The Everyday: Lessons in Mission From John the Baptizer: Day 7 of Lent

Lenten Reflection and Fasting According to Joan Chittister: Day 8 of Lent

Jean Vanier’s “Seven Aspects of Love”: Day 11 of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Suffering and Lent: Words from Joan Chittister: Day 14 of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Loneliness: Day 20 of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

If Lent Had a Theme Song…

Jean Vanier’s “Seven Aspects of Love”: Day 11 of Lent

One of the books I have been reading during Lent is Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human. As I shared here, I have worked with special needs students for the past 7+ years and have learned much more than I have taught. The marginalized, the overlooked, and the oft-neglected are those whom Vanier has dedicated his life to and has lived with and among. He has learned and written about this shared life and its resulting wisdom.

The first chapter of this book deals with the universal condition of loneliness. He begins with, “This book is about the liberation of the human heart from the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, and from those fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others.” Vanier describes loneliness as “a taste of death” that is “essentially a human experience.”

It is not just about being alone. Loneliness is not the same thing as solitude. We can be alone yet happy, because we know that we are part of a family, a community, even the universe itself. Loneliness is a feeling of not being part of anything, of being cut off. It is a feeling of being unworthy, of not being able to cope in the face of a universe that seems to work against us.

It is a feeling of being unloved and, as a result, unloveable.

Vanier has found love to be the antidote to loneliness. And love occurs, grows, and flourishes in community.

“There are for me, seven aspects of love that seem necessary for the transformation of the heart in those who are profoundly lonely.” These aspects are extremely helpful in opening up the layers within love and hence community. Here they are:

To Reveal

The first aspect of love, the key aspect, is revelation…To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention…As soon as we start selecting and judging people instead of welcoming them as they are – with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses – are reducing life, not fostering it. When we reveal to people our belief in them, their hidden beauty rises to the surface where it may be more clearly seen by all.

To Understand

To love also means to understand…I believe that every act of violence [which stems from loneliness] is also a message that needs to be understood. Violence should  not be answered just by greater violence but by real understanding. We must ask: where is the violence coming from? What is its meaning?

To Communicate

Communication is at the heart of love…I have learned that the process of teaching and learning, of communication, involves movement, back and forth: the one who is healed and the one who is healing constantly change places. As we begin to understand ourselves, we begin to understand others. It is a part of the process of moving from idealism to reality, from the sky to the earth…We must learn to listen and then to communicate.

To Celebrate

It is not enough to reveal to people their value, to understand and care for them. To love people is to celebrate them…they need laughter and play, they need people who will celebrate life with them and manifest their joy of being with them.

To Empower

It is not just a question of doing things for others but of helping them to do things for themselves, helping them to discover the meaning of their lives…not to make people…’normal,’ but to help them grow towards maturity. For each person…growth towards maturity will be different.

To Be In Communion

Communion is mutual trust, mutual belonging; it is then to-and-fro movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives. Communion is not a fixed state, it is an ever-growing and deepening reality that can turn sour if one person tries to possess the other, thus preventing growth. Communion is mutual vulnerability and openness to the other. It is liberation for both, indeed, where both are allowed to be themselves, where both are called to grow in greater freedom and openness to others and to the universe.

To a certain extent we lose control in our lives when we are open to others. Communion of hearts is a beautiful but also dangerous thing. Beautiful because it is a new form of liberation; it brings a new joy because we are no longer alone. We are close even if we are far away. Dangerous because letting down our inner barriers means that we can be easily hurt. Communion makes us vulnerable.

God is present in this liberating communion.

To Forgive

The most crucial of all in our equation…is forgiveness. The bonding between people in communion implies that we forgive each other and that we ask each other for forgiveness…As we live and work and pray together, we build a new form of family.

Which aspect of love touches you the most?

Which aspect of love are you longing for the most?

How have you found these seven aspects in community?

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Other posts in this Lent series:

Moving Beyond Immediate (and) Affirmation or Why I Will Be Blogging Through Lent

“Divine Sorrow” and Remembering: Ash Wednesday

Longings, Presence, and Vulnerability: Day 2 of Lent

Being Led by the Gentle Voice of God: A Notebook and 3 Questions: Day 3 of Lent

Lent Around the Blogosphere: 10 Links: Day 4 of Lent

First Sunday of Lent: A Prayer

Psalm 91 and Cliche: Day 5 of Lent

Community and Prayer: Henri Nouwen on Pushing Through Individualism Via Communal Prayer: Day 6 of Lent

Humility, Place, and The Everyday: Lessons in Mission From John the Baptizer: Day 7 of Lent

Lenten Reflection and Fasting According to Joan Chittister: Day 8 of Lent

Life With and Among the Marginalized: Wisdom from Jean Vanier

For more than the past seven years I have worked with students with special needs. When I moved home after college with a Biblical Studies degree in hand, there weren’t many jobs looking for someone with my background. My brother informed me of the summer program he was working in and so I too began working with him as a Special Education Teaching Assistant. It was a challenging time, yet rewarding, as I began to have my eyes opened to what I would later learn is an extremely hidden and marginalized population.

As soon as summer school was over, I began working for my local school district as a Special Education TA and have been employed by them ever since. Within this time, I have worked with all ages from kindergarten to adults of 21 years old. I have worked with students who have learning disabilities and require a little help reading to non-verbal, wheel-chair bound students who are unable to do anything for themselves (eating, toileting) and can be dangerously violent. I have worked with students all along this spectrum, many of whom have rarely been seen by the public eye. And it isn’t just these individual students that are hidden, but the families and other support structures that are behind them.

Along the way, I was blessed to attend seminary and complete a Masters in Theological Studies. Combining the life experience I was receiving at the hands of the hidden and marginalized with the holistic change in thought and action that was being cultivated in seminary, I began to sense something was amiss in the Church’s relation to those with special needs.

I firmly believe people living with – what are commonly known as – “disabilities” are the most neglected group within the Church. This was recently brought up at most recent Emergence Christianity event with Phyllis Tickle and reflected upon by Julie Clawson. There are a few resources out there regarding Christian life and witness and the beautiful-yet-hidden humans I’ve worked with. I don’t say this as to induce guilt. Rather, I’d like to ask questions and raise awareness of what our current situation actually looks like.

I have learned the most from the founder of L’Arche: Jean Vanier. L’Arche is “an international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities.” It is not just another home of seclusion for these people. No, it is a community where, in the words of Vanier himself, “We live together – those with disabilities and those who wish to have a deep and sometimes lasting relationship with them. We laugh and cry and sometimes fight with one another; we work, we celebrate life, and we pray together.” And in this way the giving of life does not flow in one direction, as would be normally thought, from person without disability to the one with. (To be honest, this is a horribly anemic way of seeing each other. We all have disabilities, some are just more visually identifiable than others.) Instead the learning of life and love is reciprocal as one develops the eyes and ears to see the life and love emanating from those we normally would deem life and loveless. This has been a lesson I have had to learn over and over.

I plan on writing more from this space of learning from those deemed weak and insignificant. Jesus has quite a bit to say about this reality and thankfully I have come across Vanier and his rooted wisdom from actual life. Before I write about the lessons I have been graced with, I beg you to watch these short videos.

Watch them. Listen to Vanier. Reflect upon what he is saying and the community he is saying them out of. He is a light.