In the summer of 2016, I attended my twenty-fifth college reunion. Along with the delights of meeting up with lifelong friends and visiting old haunts, this involved the time-honored ritual of telling people I hadn’t had contact with in a quarter-century where-I-live-now-and-what-I-do.
“I live in a community in rural New England centered around the care of adults with developmental disabilities,” I would say. “My husband and I are running one of the four houses there.”
“Oh, how wonderful,” would be the response, with a glowing appreciation of my selfless devotion to such a noble task. One person even said, “You’re doing God’s work.”
I would smile and nod bashfully, not knowing quite how to tell them how wonderful it really was, but not due to any amazing abilities of mine. Or how to explain that God’s work was indeed taking place, but not through me. Rather, it is I who have been privileged to encounter God in the form of human beings who, with their so-called “special needs,” have shown me how in need of grace and mercy I am myself. Imperfect, abnormal, disabled in the eyes of the world, “despised and rejected of men,” it is they who meet life with the indomitable strength of the divine realm, while I faint and falter before every obstacle. It is by witnessing their courage that I muster up the will to pick myself up and try again, and again, and again.
When I had come to this place three years previously, I had no idea it would give rise to such a revelation. My husband and I were looking for more stable employment than the part-time freelance work we had been cobbling together, for a more rural environment to raise our six-year-old son, and for the chance to connect with other families to help mitigate the one-sidedness of having an only child. My husband had experience in working with people with disabilities; I had no such background, but I imagined it couldn’t be that different from managing my own small household, only with more people to care for.
Well, sort of. One of my first trials-by-fire came when I was undertaking the seemingly simple task of putting one of our residents to bed. Mark, an intensely determined man with few spoken words but many ritualistic observances, had been safely stowed beneath the covers and now I just had to turn off the lights. I pressed the button on the light fixture and he popped up out of bed.
“No, no!” he cried and turned the light back on. Did he not want me to turn it off? Did he sleep with the lights on? But no – “Turn it off, turn it off,” he commanded me urgently.
After a few minutes of these antics, I had the bright idea of turning off the wall switch, which, as it turned out, was connected to the light fixture.
Ah, that was it. Peace descended at last.
It was clear that I had a lot to learn, and that it had nothing to do with intellectual thinking, which would see no difference between turning off the light with a button or with a switch. The intellect had always been my guiding star, and intellectual achievement my highest goal. But as we are discovering now through all kinds of upheavals, the intellect can only get us so far, and will in fact drive us into a ditch if we depend upon it alone. There is a truth beyond intellectual knowledge, a language beyond words, and it is this that we must begin to learn, lest our world fall to destruction. In this schooling, the residents were the masters, and I their student.
Another of my early learning experiences was getting used to helping the female residents with showering. I was afraid to disturb or hurt them — how would they react to this strange person being in such an intimate connection with their bodies? — but I soon found out that they were completely used to this form of assistance, and that they patiently endured my clumsiness until I became more adept.
In fact, I came to feel that rather than me doing them a service, it was they who were giving me a precious gift: the opportunity to care for them. By exposing their incapacities, and trusting me to do what they could not do for themselves, they were helping me to grow in empathy and compassion. As I came to love them as individuals, not only as a job I had to do, this love and warmth spread not just outward but inward, through me, changing me.
I started to learn patience toward my own incapacities, and to admit them to myself and to God. And when I was able to honestly look at qualities I had buried long ago, parts of myself I found unacceptable and repulsive, the energy I had been spending on their suppression was suddenly available to me again, bringing healing forces that I didn’t even know I needed.
It wasn’t always easy; sometimes turmoil and disruption were the first results, and I was tempted to turn back. But when I was able to follow the residents, to imitate their patience and their trust, it carried me through some of the darkest moments I have ever known, through conflicts with colleagues, the collapse of relationships, and the remembrance of childhood trauma. I learned what it really means to die in order to be reborn, to go through the eye of the needle. Words, however powerful and true, had not been enough for me. The residents showed me what Christ taught, what he called us to do.
In this schooling, many things are the reverse of how they first appear, and ordinary ways of thinking don’t work — as Alice found when she went through the looking glass. When a person says “I” to mean “you” and vice versa, when words come out garbled or not at all, it requires a giant leap in our intuitive capacities in order to communicate, to restore the lost connections.
One Thursday, I was preparing lunch with a resident who would come over every week from another of our four community houses to cook with me. Maria was a dynamic Latina woman who intimidated me at first by her tendency to pull everyone she met into a salsa dance party. After I figured out that if I shook my head playfully at her from a safe distance, she would stop, we developed a lovely relationship. However, I was still unsure of how to interpret some of her words and gestures. Her speech was often unclear, and words didn’t always mean the same thing to me that they did to her.
As I was setting out the lunch plates and getting ready to serve the food, she appeared in the doorway of the dining room, pulling at her hair, scratching her arms, and saying “Ketchup, ketchup” – a code word for something upsetting. What was wrong? Had I not been paying enough attention to her? Did she need a hug, or reassurance that yes, we were having dessert? I got her to sit down on the couch and stop hurting herself, but she still looked deeply uncomfortable.
As I stared at her in perplexity, I suddenly heard the music that was playing. The CD changer had switched discs without my noticing it, going from a classical mix to some strange, piercing composition with twanging strings and bagpipes. Was this the source of Maria’s discomfort?
I put on the Beatles instead, and she relaxed back into the cushions and smiled at me. Lunch proceeded without further disturbance.
I felt as though I had passed some kind of test. There was nothing in Maria’s words or behavior to indicate that the music was what was bothering her, yet by momentarily slipping into her place, trying to feel what she was feeling, I had intuited something that defied intellectual understanding. I had gone through the looking glass, into the world beyond words.
It is by caring for others, by wanting them to achieve their highest potential independent of any benefit to ourselves, that we can reach this place. I can never be thankful enough for the chance to strive towards it every day, through the trust that the residents place in me, their willingness to forgive my many mistakes, and their undiminished capacity for love and joy in the face of what to me would be unbearable suffering.
It is to them that I look when I wonder how to bear “Christ in you,” or what it means to be members of his body. That is the reality that they live. I can only hope to one day become more like them.