Most who visit this blog know that I work with those with Intellectual Disabilities. If you do not know this….I am a Coordinator of Vocational Services in a Catholic facility in Chicago that serves nearly 600 individuals with a wide range of cognitive disabilities with more services than can be imagined. It is a remarkable place that can teach anyone a respect for life and not just life on its most basic terms, but life at its most abundant.
How I got to be here is a rather long story and one that makes me take very seriously the idea of destiny, but it also involves an intimacy that does not belong here. I am fond of saying “the people who need to know such things, know them already.” I will let that stand in this instance.
What I do feel compelled to share is what I have learned in my work, a knowledge that comes from the personalities and viewpoints of those I serve and the mission of a remarkable place that takes those things seriously. I will say here there is a thin line between being a service provider who has to remain at a certain distance from those served and the deepest bond of human affection that makes that service possible to begin with. Maintaining that distinction, yet being “all in” in the lives of others is a certainly a gift and one that is possessed by the best in the helping professions. That too is a worthwhile topic, but it is a digression from what I want to do here.
So onto the matter at hand…..after 18 years working in an incredible place with incredible people, what have I learned? For lack of a better way of handling the matter, here is a list, partial to be sure, but including those things which have been of great personal importance.
- The Immediacy of God: There is for those I work with, a sincere and very real sense of the spiritual. It is not one that comes from study (a place I too often find myself) and not even so much from upbringing (though that plays a role) as it does from a willingness to see in others, the image of God. This is probably what I can expound on the least; only because language is too limited a tool to explain this. It resides purely in the world of experience and only by those who can be open to it.
- Life Belongs to Life: There is no way that authentic living is not about the most beautiful and saddest things. All of us reside each day closer to the end of life. We can deny that fact and find ourselves in the place where we never live or we can embrace it and hold fast to the joy of living, even though it will bring us the greatest sorrows. Where I work, it is the later that informs us. My “saddest days have come with the angel’s rejoicing.” That I garner any joy on the days that follow comes from the place of knowing that those I have seen die had the most joyous lives possible, even though their lives may have been among the most difficult. On a personal level that challenged every belief I had in vigor and vitality and never wanting to live with my perceived absence of such things. Such thinking, however, had been wrongheaded. Vigor is not about a certain physical or mental state, but living to the fullest in spite of such things.
- The Universal is Found in the Particular: There is something to be found in not looking at the world too broadly. By this I don’t mean we should not do this, but we so often garner little from always looking at the big things and trying to figure those out. It is really the little things that matter. Besides they do contain those big things already. So many of the clients I serve do not look at the world in such broad terms, but they do get it. Point in case….I was reading two Halloween stories written by some of these the other day. They were really examples of flash fiction, each less than a hundred words and a little silly on the surface. It was an exercise in humor after all. Confidentiality prevents me from sharing these stories, but I wish I could. In two bursts of storytelling were quick plots minus adjectives (Hemingway would have loved them) that told a story on the most basic terms, but when thought about were really about big things. In one case it was about love conquering all and the other, good overcoming evil. You don’t get any bigger than that. The next time any of us look for something with universal appeal; it should be among those we are closest to as we share our most basic stories.
- All Need Dignity and Charity: In a world ruled by reciprocity, we are big on dignity and we need to be. Everyone is possessed with ability and those abilities demand honor. What we forget is that all are also in need of charity. No human resides with the totality of strength or intellect. No person ever lives without having to say, “I need you.” I use to loathe saying those words and all it did was give me untold stress. Now I have to say them all the time to clients and staff. Doing this in no way negates my abilities, but it does make me practiced in a humility that I am still learning.
- We Live in a Beautiful World: In the complexity we give life we can fail to see a beautiful creation and the love that inhabits it. On any of the most difficult days that one of our clients has, I know that very soon they will be back in a place where they love life and are quick to see its joys. And life is joyful and the world is beautiful. It is that way in the most everyday things. You do not have to tell me that our chapel is not the Cathedral in Koln and the Warren Park golf course is not Augusta. It does not mean we can’t see them that way. And I also know that the simplest bonds of friendship is not the divine madness, but one can get all the support and love needed in life from this beautiful state. I have learned these things. Now if I could learn to receive the same pleasure in the driest dirty tanqueray martini ever made that a client can get from a can of Pepsi, I think my education in the joy of living will be complete.
- Love is an Act of Courage: This is really in a separate category, because I learned much of this at home raising a child who was disabled, but I saw many of the best examples among my coworkers, who continue to help me struggle with and live in this state. To illustrate here are two quotes I’ve used here before from very different people. (“The only disability is the inability to love.” Anais Nin and “ to cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception; it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, either in time or in eternity.” Søren Kierkegaard.) Truth is that language that concerns disability is misplaced if we do not know what true disability is. And true disability is really only this….not calling together all of one’s fortitude to be as completely with another as one is called to be. Now this is different things to different people and the discernment can be difficult, but the concept is not, even if it does require considerable courage. And love does require courage and more so when we are with people who will call on us to stay with them, pray for them, relieve their sorrow, and celebrate their joy. This too comes more with the experience of the thing than a solid understanding of the matter. Needless to say it demands an openness that is lacking in many, but once received brings life its greatest authenticity.