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.