helped helpers

I’ve long held that disabled persons have a gift.

Albeit is is a gift that few if anyone want.  But some of the most mature, caring people I’ve known (in my youth work and elsewhere) have been people who have had the privilege (one nobody asks for) of having a sibling or child who is disabled. Disabled people teach us to care.

But in this post, I wanted to record a different thought I had related to disability – and it might have the potential to be a bit controversial.

I’ve noticed that there is much effort to help disabled persons to be as ‘independent’ as possible.  To live in their own place, to get their own groceries, to drive their own car – that sort of thing.

I guess my question is when does the good, humane task of helping someone ‘stand on their own two feet’ (so to speak) become something that ‘helps’ them into a lifestyle that is isolating, individualistic and thus inhumane?

I have a conviction that humans are made to be burdens to one another, and yet it is resisted both by those who fear being the burden, and by those who fear bearing the burden.  This resistance, I’m convinced (and admit to in my own experience and choices), is part of the pressure of living in an individualistic society where ‘freedom’ is defined by how many (often consumer) options one has.

More choices, though, can be an enslaving thing.  I know a disabled person who has (again) been placed in a living situation that isolates them, makes them feel intensely lonely, and contributes to them seeking out friends that encourage behaviour that has got them into legal trouble multiple times.

But this person, like all of us at times, resists the help that they need so much.  I once threw out my back trying to – at the last minute – shift all my possessions between dwelling places.  Help is not easy to ask for – disabled or not.  And help is not easy to give.

So I’m just wondering.  Should we ‘help’ disabled people to become like us?  People who too often don’t know how to ask for help?  Thoughts welcome.

burdens

Humans are the most vulnerable and needy at the beginning and end of their lives.

Prof John Wyatt describes (mp3PDF) the feeling of caring for his mother, stricken with dementia:

Even when my mother was tragically affected by dementia she was still on the journey. Close to the end of her life I visited her in the nursing home where she was receiving 24 hour nursing care. It was meal time and I was trying to feed her from a yoghurt pot with a teaspoon. “Open you mouth, here it comes…”. And I suddenly had a flashback – this was exactly what she used to do with me when I was an infant. And now the tables were turned.

We don’t like to be vulnerable and needy.  We are culture-trained to be secure and sufficient – on our own. Wyatt talks about the common phrase reflecting the fear we have of growing old, and thus vulnerable and needy.  “I just don’t want to be a burden to anybody.” (Or stronger, such as: “I simply will not become a burden to anyone!”)

But ‘being a burden’ to one another is one of the things that unites the human family together.  Our precious son, Thomas, was quite a ‘burden’ on the Special Care Birth Unit that looked after him as his lungs developed (having been born 7 week early); and he continues to be a ‘burden’ to us (nappies, feeding, lugging his gear around, etc., etc.)!

It is a cultural myth and a tragic assumption that human worth is only in ability to ‘contribute to society’.  But even given this false notion, those more ‘burdensome’ humans (babies, those with various kind of disability, the elderly, comatose, terminally ill, etc.), actually do contribute to society: they teach and mature the rest of us. I become a better human being having to ‘put up with’ others.  Wyatt continues about feeding his mother:

But in a strange sense this was not an evil, terrible thing. It was part of the narrative of a human life. She was learning more of what it meant to be a parent and I was learning more of what it meant to be a son. She was still my mother although tragically impaired and deformed. My duty was to treat her with love, respect and care.

Abortion and euthanasia are hotly divisive topics, and there are real people with real circumstances involved.  Most agree that the passive examples of ‘letting nature take its course’ ((A teleologically-loaded, and thus other-than-scientific, statement!)) such as saving the mother ahead of the baby and the removal of life-support in some cases are ethical.  But both are, in my view, justified far too often simply because a burden is being avoided. ((Take the common scenario of a sexually active teen girl having a pregnancy she (nor her sexual partner) were not planning on.  Could it be that having to face the responsibility of child birth and child-rearing may be just the thing that could help them not only avoid post-abortion depression, but also help them to mature and grow into responsible adult-hood?))  As we’ve seen, bearing burdens mature and grow us.  We hugely miss out by avoiding them.

Paul, in giving one of his various summaries of the essence of being a Christian, says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way fulfill the Law of Christ.”