Some of us are here to teach
Lessons I Have Learned From Our Disabled Son
During a visit to the University of Mary in North Dakota to give a couple of talks, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture on the problem of pain by the philosopher, Eleanore Stump. The whole lecture was engaging and thought-provoking but I was particularly struck by some words of Clara Claiborne Park that Professor Stump quoted:
Our lives change and change us beyond anticipation. I do not forget the pain – it aches in a particular way when I look at Jessy’s friends, some of them just her age, and allow myself for a moment to think of all she cannot be. But we cannot sift experience and take only the part that does not hurt us …. So then: this experience we did not choose, which we would have given anything to avoid, has made us different, has made us better. Through it we have learned the lesson that no one studies willingly, the hard, slow lesson of Sophocles and Shakespeare – that one grows by suffering.
Dr. Park goes on to say that the suffering, and the lessons learned from the suffering, was “Jessy’s gift”. It was the gift of wisdom, through bitter experience, which her autistic daughter had given to her family. These words reminded me of other words of wisdom that a friend of mine once imparted. Most of us are here to learn, he told me, but some of us are here to teach. His words struck home. They were so true! I realized as the words sunk in that our son, who has Down syndrome and autism, was here as a teacher. We, his parents, were here to look after him, to be sure, but he was here to look after us. He needed us to take care of his physical needs; we needed him to take care of our metaphysical needs.
Leo, our son, teaches us patience. He teaches us selflessness. He teaches us temperance. We learn to temper our desires so that we can meet his needs. Knowing that he needs us helps us to know how much we need each other. His meekness puts our pride to shame.
Such are some of the lessons he teaches us, but such a list fails to do justice to his power as a teacher and the gifts he bestows on us daily. We are indebted to him in ways too numerous and manifold to mention and in a manner that would make it as impossible to repay as the extent of the indebtedness is impossible to adequately express.
One way of expressing our indebtedness is to see Leo as the gift of the Cross. Reducing the incarnational splendor of our son to the mere abstraction of a metaphor does not do him justice but it does make a point. We need the crosses that life sends us to teach us the lessons that we need to learn. Crosses cross us. They make us cross. They cross our desires. And they do so because we need to be crossed. We need to learn the priceless lesson that love is inseparable from self-sacrifice. If we will not sacrifice ourselves for others, we sacrifice others for ourselves. If we do not accept the cross, we crucify others. Is there a better or more important lesson that any of us can learn?
And what about others, just like Leo, who are sacrificed on the altars of their own parents’ selfishness?
A documentary shown a few years ago by the BBC, “A World without Down Syndrome”, presented by an actress whose own son has Down’s, highlighted the fact that 90% of people in the UK who know their child will be born with Down's syndrome will have an abortion.
"The doctor said to us: 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.' The nurse on duty cried. I don't think anyone said anything at all positive," says Sally Phillips, the presenter of the documentary. "It wouldn't have been any different if they'd told me my child wasn't going to make it." In other words, and to put the matter bluntly, it would have been better if Mrs. Phillips’ ten-day-old son, just tested positively for Down syndrome, had never been born. It would have been better were he dead. It’s only a short step from such an attitude to the smothering of the ten-day-old baby, a “final solution” to the problem that is already being advocated by certain “pro-choice” philosophers.
Like Clara Claiborne Park, Mrs. Phillips says that having her son, Olly, “has changed me and my family for the better”.
"I was told it was a tragedy and actually it's a comedy,” she says. “It's like a sitcom where something appears to go wrong but there's nothing bad at the end of it. He's also incredibly caring. He's the only one of my three kids who every single day will ask me how my day was. He's really kind. He's really focused on other people. He's really gifted emotionally. He'll notice if people are upset when I won't."
Some critics were bemused that the BBC had produced such a “surprisingly pro-life” documentary, and a reviewer in the UK’s Guardian complained that Mrs. Philips was “biased” because she had a child with Down’s and therefore couldn’t judge the issue objectively. One wonders if the same reviewer would say that victims of apartheid in South Africa, such as Nelson Mandela, were too “biased” to judge the rights and wrongs of racial segregation, or, a more accurate parallel scenario considering that we are talking of those who makes sacrifices to preserve the lives of others, whether Oskar Schindler was too “biased” against the Nazi solution of systematically exterminating undesirable people to judge the rights and wrongs of the Holocaust.
What is one to think of those who not only refuse to learn the lessons that the gift of disabled children teach us but seek to exterminate the teachers so that they don’t have to learn the lessons? What are we to think of a Presidential candidate who boasted of her support for the killing of such teachers? What are we to think of her plans to not only make the killing of such teachers easier but to force the rest of us to pay for their extermination? With this in mind, and regardless of what we think of Donald Trump, we can be pleased that such a person is not now in the White House.