Seeing Christ in Others: Recognizing the Gifts of the Disabled

This past week, I read an article that’s been making its rounds on social media about a mother in London who won the “right” to murder her daughter. The judges were swayed by the claim that the daughter was in pain and just wanted to be at peace. Ironic, then, that the mother chose one of the most painful ways for her child to die, starving her for 14 days until she finally succumbed to the lack of nutrition and fluids. Nancy did not have a terminal disease, nor was she in some way injured so severely that there was no hope of her living. In fact, she was breathing on her own and not on life support. Rather, her mother sought to end her life simply because she was disabled, needing round the clock care and unable to talk or walk. This mother, and the judges who decided to play God with the life of this 12 year old child, made the decision that her life had less value than theirs did.

 

Talking with others about this article took me down the path of old memories. More specifically, reminiscing about my best friend, Joey. Joey had Tourettes syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system, which caused him a lot of pain, both emotionally and physically. The main symptom of Tourettes is tics, which involve unusual, repetitive, and uncontrollable movements and/or sounds, of which Joey’s were severe. He was, technically speaking, handicapped. He definitely had his moments that caused a lot of panic and hurt for those around him, but he also had a tremendous heart full of love for his friends. He was an amazing example of bravery through suffering and lived his “Life is Good” motto to the fullest each and every day, despite enduring near constant pain and unsuccessful brain surgery.

 

I remember many occasions sitting with him, holding his hand because his tics were bad and his head was already bruised and sometimes bleeding.  Holding his hand didn’t often stop the tics, but it gave him some comfort and saved his swollen wrists and knuckles from additional pain.  I remember rushing to the hospital to make sure he was okay after he’d totaled a car. Calling his parents in tears one night when I realized he’d taken off and no one had any idea where he had gone. Why? Why would someone be willing to go through upheaval and suffering that was not their own, for the sake of someone else? Because we all loved him so very much. We were willing to be there for him as much as we could and suffer with him if necessary, because his personality and his smile and his love for his family and friends made every moment of pain and hurt worth it.

 

Dearest Joey died in a single-car accident in 2012, most likely from having an episode of tics and losing control of his car. You could say his disability killed him. And yet, he had had such an impact on so many people in his short life of just 30 years that the Church was packed full for his funeral Mass with people who loved him or had been touched by him in some way. There were dozens of priests there that spoke of how devoted he was to his faith, the Blessed Mother, the Rosary and to his family and his friends. He was a man who endured great suffering and yet, nearly always went out of his way to make others laugh, spread cheer and love, and show the world that, yes, “life is good”. Each person in that Church was someone like me, someone who had been impacted drastically by having Joey in their lives. Joey’s disability didn’t keep him from having a full life, despite the everyday trials of living with Tourettes. In fact, you could even say that his disability made him better prepared to touch others in ways that we can only dream of being able to. Had his parents decided, like the mother in London, that his pain was too much for them to watch, hundreds of individuals would have been deprived of that blessed experience of knowing such a great man and having the honor of calling him friend.

 

The dignity of human persons and the sacredness of life, including the lives of individuals like Joey and Nancy, has always been the foundation of Catholic Church social teaching. The Church believes that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person. Starving a child to death only threatens the life and dignity of that child. Ignoring the need for friendship, love and respect reduces the dignity of the disabled man like Joey, who is as deserving of that care as any other human. Treating the disabled as second class citizens unworthy of our time, attention, affection, medical care not only affects their dignity as a human being made in the image and likeness of God, but also puts their lives in danger. But they don’t just need us to care for them, to show them love and affection, to provide them the medical care and comfortable accommodations when necessary. We need them as well. They give us the opportunity to open our hearts and our minds to the way of God, to give of ourselves as we are called to do as loving Christians, to put into practice what we profess with our tongues and to treat these individuals as we would treat Christ.

 

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25: 41-46

 

Let us not be like the accursed, who turn their backs on those deemed unworthy of dignity, but rather open our hearts to Christ and treat our brothers and sisters, no matter their state in life, with the same dignity we expect for ourselves.

Joe

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