Human Dignity and Simple Acts of Joy

            My wife and I traveled to see our oldest son and his family this past weekend and on Sunday attended church with them. We sat one pew behind three disabled young men and their caregiver who, we learned, were regulars at this service. One of the individuals was nonverbal and apparently autistic, and apart from vocalizing occasionally in what sounded like throat singing, he participated little in the service. His colleagues were, as physicians might say, “higher functioning,” quite verbal and very interested in the service and in their surroundings. They were especially intrigued by the music for the liturgy, which was provided by a small band, complete with drums, piano and guitar. Both young men took evident and special joy in the songs and competed with one another over who could create the most fetching (and least disruptive, for they were aware of the need for a modicum of decorum) and imaginative dance moves. Our new friends could not resist smiling and seeking their caretaker’s approval for their joyful dance. While urging a measure of propriety, she smiled approvingly at their self-evident happiness and this only encouraged them in their antics.

            At no point, however, were they disruptive. And when the service called for all participants to share a sign of peace with others in nearby pews–a greeting with a shared statement of a hope for peace–the two colleagues, whom I guessed likely shared a group home with their less active friend, shook hands and reached out to all and sundry, including the two young women seated immediately near them, who then openly smiled with kindness and warmth at these garrulous fellows, even if they previously seemed a bit unsure of what to make of them. I, too, was delighted to share in their lively and spirited warmth and genuine evocation of goodwill. It was indeed heartwarming and deeply touching to see them reach out in transparent hope and innocence to all near them. They did not appear to fear rejection or to count the costs of their deeply symbolic and vulnerable actions before taking them.

            Meanwhile, perhaps four pews away, a gentleman I judged to be in his mid-40’s, of severe countenance, dress and demeanor, spent much of the service observing the young men in the pew before us, alternately appearing to exhibit annoyance, puzzlement and stern reproach as the service proceeded. He seemed perplexed over just what to make of this trio of fellow parishioners who were so unlike him and his equally unsettled and severe-looking spouse.

I was increasingly struck as I watched this mini-drama unfold at how very human it all was. The story line was deeply familiar and the fearful parishioner could have been any individual struggling to understand and cope with “difference” in another and to make sense of what constituted acceptable behavior in light of that perceived distinctiveness. It was plain, even to a stranger, that this man simply could not settle on whether to accept these young men for their shared humanity, or to be upset that they did not meet his expectations, did not accede to settled normal rules of behavior and did not look or dress as he might have expected.

            As the service proceeded, this little drama became for me a metaphor of how difficult it is for human beings to cope with “otherness and difference,” the challenge of alterity, and how quickly such situations can create discomfort, rancor and fear. He of the strict countenance clearly grappled with how and whether to regard the disabled men as anything other than profoundly annoying or worse. After a bit, I sensed that annoyance was in fact his choice as his gaze hardened into something I perceived as anger.

            Paradoxically, as the gentleman and his wife slowly settled into an apparently deeply uneasy and unforgiving mindset, the young men exhibited the opposite behavior, demonstrating a profound openness to those around them and joyfully making their acquaintance. The contrast between the willingness of these “impaired” individuals to reach out and to accord dignity to all they saw and the judgmental, and ultimately hard demeanor of a share of the “able-bodied” individuals they encountered could hardly have been more evident or more searing. I watched with a mixture of awe and sadness as this poignant episode unfolded. Human possibility and hope were embodied in those considered by society as “disabled,” while those most able to make discerning judgments demonstrated the opposite human tendencies. It was all topsy-turvy from what one might expect, but it all nonetheless was clear and made sense. We “able-bodied” individuals have much to learn about human dignity, living in the moment and taking profound joy from our most quotidian experiences from those we often dismiss and fear as “disabled others.” Indeed, human possibility and peace in the long run likely require just such capacities of all individuals.