When I was a teenager, there was a boy in my class who was not quite normal. I don’t know if he suffered from a type of mental disorder or if he was just a bit “different”—never completely accustomizing to the culture he lived in. I suspect the latter. Somehow he did not quite fit in. He had funny mannerisms, would sometimes say strange things and often seemed oblivious to social propriety. One of my enduring memories of him is watching him sit in the front pew at church and proceed to give his ears a really good cleaning, sprinkling what he dug out on the carpet below. He was oblivious to this being odd behavior. While clearly bright in some ways, he was hopeless in others. Something of a loner, probably less by choice and more by lack of interest from his classmates, he would spend lunch and breaks by himself, though this never appeared to bother him too much. I don’t think he got teased too much simply because he was quite confident in who and what he was and in who and what he was not. Now that I think about it, I don’t know that he would really have known or cared even if he had been teased.
Every now and then my parents would tell me I had to have him over on a Sunday afternoon between the two worship services. The church we attended at the time met for morning worship at 9:30 or 10:00 and for a second worship service in the middle of the afternoon. This was ideal for visiting, as a person or family could come over between services and enjoy a nice visit, but not one that grew too long. And so I would sometimes find him in my company on Sunday afternoons. I really didn’t mind having him over, despite his eccentricities. I suppose I probably worried that being spied with him would somehow lower my social status (humble though this status may have been) but I’m sure my friends knew that I had been forced to invite him over and that I spent time with him more out of imposition than desire. I never really got to know him too well. A couple of times he reciprocated the invitation and, with trepidation lest anyone spot me, I would go to his house and spend the afternoon with his family. I don’t remember what we did on these afternoons together. My memories have faded.
When the afternoon service was over and I had the evening to myself, I was proud of what I had done. I had taken this simple guy who had no friends and had been a friend to him for a few hours. I had allowed him to feel what I thought was acceptance and to feel that he was not entirely alone. But come Monday morning I would not stand by his side and talk to him. I would allow him to walk endless circuits around the school or to sit quietly with a book. When pity was taken out of the equation, I had nothing to offer. I had no desire to give of myself. It was almost as if I would spend those Sunday afternoons clearing my throat to the sky and whispering under my breath, “God! Do You see what I’m doing here, right? I’m being a friend to this guy! And it’s not much fun!”
I wasn’t a true friend, of course. I didn’t really care about my classmate. If my parents decided he needed to have some companionship for a day I would take him under my wing, but I did it for them or for me or maybe somehow for God. But not for him. My true friends are those people I enjoy spending time with just for the joy of being with them. This guy was someone I spent time with out of obligation or out of a desire to put a notch in my belt of sanctification.
A short time ago I reviewed a marvelous little book called Same Kind of Different as Me. The book has touched many people and I think it has done so because it is the story of two people who seem to be so unequal and yet find true equality. One is a successful businessman while the other is a homeless drifter; one is married with a loving family while the other is single and alone; one is normal and the other is decidedly not. The relationship starts as one of pity but ends as one of true fraternal love and acceptance. The one who seems to have everything already is the one who receives untold blessings.
My pastor has spent a couple of days blogging about considering special needs in church. He says, quite rightly I think, that “only the Christian Church is really set up to joyfully co-exist with families of all different types of needs. For a large measure of the tension we feel is bound up in our own sin, and only Christians have a means to genuinely deal with that sin. Because God has given us the Holy Spirit, we can be humble. And large doses of humility are what is needed in order to walk through all this tension and awkwardness.” He quotes his friend Justin Reimer who says, “What these families [of disabled children] need is help, not pity.”
Pity isn’t necessarily a bad emotion, but I’ve found that it does not tend to be the foundation of good, noble and godly ends. I pitied my classmate and did what I felt was best for him. I extended some kind of companionship, but my pity led me to focus on myself more than on him. What I did, I did for others and not for him. Looking inward or upward I was unable to see past myself to see this boy for who he was. I found pleasure not in anything he was or anything he offered, but in what I thought I might gain through the gratitude of my parents, the gratefulness of his parents, or the blessing of God. Looking back I can see that I really knew nothing about him. I never made any kind of effort to get to know him. I never made the effort to let him touch my life or to show me who he really was. I thought I already knew. I was arrogant, believing in the innate superiority of my normalcy while assuming that his eccentricity necessarily meant he had nothing to offer and that he needed my help. He was pitied, but not accepted; tolerated but never loved.
I’ve known other people like this. I know some today. They do not need pity. The parents of those who are disabled do not want you to pity them or to accept them as a project—as a means to your own sanctification. They want you to see these people for who they are and what they can offer and to love and embrace and accept them on that basis. This was a point I never got to with my classmate. He was, at best, a project; an inconvenience I grudgingly accepted at times; someone who was somehow less than a full person. When I think of him and I think of the other people in my life who were never quite normal, never quite adhering to the norms of society or never quite able to adhere to them, I wonder what I’ve missed in forsaking such friendship. I wonder what I’ve missed in pitying rather than accepting—in seeking myself rather than the other person. I wonder what they’ve lost and what I’ve lost because I could not realign my expectations for friendship and companionship. I never learned to appreciate these people, to look beyond their eccentricities and disabilities, and to see the people beyond. I never learned to enjoy their presence, their friendship and all that they offer.
I’m confident that Paul is right and that the church is the best and most natural place for these people and their families to joyfully co-exist with others. But I’m confident that I’ve done a lousy job of proving him right.