On learning about joy, love and the dignity of the human being from my special needs son
It was a hot day in late summer, and my best friend was visiting after several years of living in Europe. We were watching my autistic son buzzing around the pool. I felt like my brain was going to melt from stress. Pools are always a danger for children, and a child who isn’t capable of understanding verbal commands is a special challenge under any conditions. My friend looked contemplative. “I really like him,” he said after a while. “He’s,” he searched his mind for an apt word, “edifying.”
This moment captured two of the aspects of caring for a special needs child that are highlighted in Amoris Laetitia. On the one hand, the particular stresses and trials that come with caring for someone who can’t do the things that most of us take for granted. On the other hand, a unique blessing that they bear to the world.
The pope first speaks to the difficulties that families of people with special needs face, offering his gratitude and admiration.
But then he goes on to point out that a special needs child is not merely a burden, a cross to be shouldered. “People with disabilities are a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid and unity.” Moreover, the presence of a child with special needs can lead the family to “discover … new approaches, new ways of acting, a different way of understanding and identifying with others.”
The lives of people with disabilities are not, here, conceived of merely as a complex of needs that have to be constantly attended to. My son’s existence is not an empty one, a drawn out odyssey of suffering and isolation which only has significance in so far as it testifies to a distant hope that he will one day be restored to full human functioning in heaven. His life is meaningful and significant now: he is “a gift.”
It was this dimension of my child’s existence that my friend noticed when he sat contemplating him playing by the poolside.
My son may never communicate what is going on in his head when he sits rifling through a book until its pages fall to pieces. He might never learn to use a toilet. He may not ever be self-supporting or become a “contributing member of society” in a gross economic sense. It’s possible that his life will primarily consist of rewatching his favorite episodes of Blue Planet, shuffling cards, and jumping and clapping for joy at the site of random dust particles floating through a sunbeam.
Yet this does not make his life insignificant. Rather, Pope Francis says that the loving response that his life engenders is a “sign of the Spirit” that it is “paradigmatic” of the ways in which we are to show mercy and care for the vulnerable. His life is a revelation of one of the deepest truths of human existence.
Our worth, our dignity and our purpose does not derive from our abilities. From God’s perspective, none of us can do anything even remotely impressive. He can call worlds into being with a word, bring forth matter from the void, and write all the mysterious forms of life using a chain of four chemical bases. We can’t even build equipment capable of detecting the vast majority of His genius.
Compared to the original, in Whose image and likeness we are made, we are all quite spectacularly disabled.
Our lives are brief. Our ideas are laughable. Our accomplishments will all be swallowed by the gaping maw of time. And yet we have such immeasurable value in the eyes of God that He was willing to die for us on a Cross. Not because of what we are capable of, but simply because our existence delights Him.
In Zephaniah, the prophet assures Israel that God “will take great delight in you, in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17) God’s fundamental attitude towards us is one of overflowing joy.
The gift that my son gives to the world is to manifest this overflowing joy in the simple fact of existence. The gift that he gives to me, in particular, is to remind me that my value as a person does not flow from my accomplishments, or from my failures. On the contrary, the meaning, value and significance of my achievements and disappointments flows from me.
In his smile, and his wonderment, and his strange little songs he bears a special kind of witness to the absolute and inalienable dignity of every human being. In doing so, he teaches me new ways of thinking, of seeing and of loving.