by Marjorie George
One of the things I admire about HEB grocery stores is their willingness to employ persons who face the challenges of disabilities. At the HEB where I shop regularly, Katie, who has Down’s syndrome, has been bagging my groceries for years. So has Blake, who exhibits a low degree of mental impairment. There are others also, whose nametags I have not made note of.
I have become accustomed to Katie’s and Blake’s behaviors. I know that if I give Katy a warm smile, it may not be returned. When I engage Blake in conversation, I know that he may go off on a monologue that has nothing to do with what I thought we were discussing. And that’s OK, because Katie is not her Down’s syndrome, and Blake is not his mental impairment; and it is important that I not define them by only what I can see.
J. Philip Newell, in Christ of the Celts, tells of dealing with the psychotic breakdown of his 16-year-old son. “I was overwhelmed,” says Newell, “by a sense of not knowing what to do to help him.” But even when he witnessed his son’s paralyzing fears, Newell never confused his son’s illness with the boy’s deepest identity. “I did not assume that [the illness] was his true nature,” says Newell.
Newell likens it to something he learned from Alexander Scott, a nineteenth-century Celtic teacher, in the analysis of a plant with blight. “If such a plant were shown to botanists, even if the botanists had never seen that type of plant before,” writes Newell, echoing Scott, “they would define it in terms of its essential life features. They would identify the plant with reference to its healthy properties; they would not define it in terms of its blight.”
The take-away for me is to not define others by the blights I sometimes see. The alcoholic is not his alcoholism; the addict is not his addiction; the person with mental illness is not the illness. We, all of us and each of us, have been created in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1:26-27).
To be sure, the world is not yet perfect; and we are subject to sin and evil and illness and just plain dumb mistakes. Some we choose; some are chosen for us. But we do not allow them to define us or others. I am not the really stupid mistake I made a couple of weeks ago when I overshot a parking space and got my car so wedged in between two cement markers that we had to call a tow truck to extricate it. That was poor judgment. Should I continue to display such erratic driving behavior, then perhaps we shall have to consider if it’s time to take away Mom’s driver’s license (note to my children: I will be the judge of that). Not because I am a bad person, but because my eyes grow dim and my hearing diminishes and my reflexes have slowed down. They are wearing out from the full use that has been made of them over a lifetime. I see that as a good thing.
We do not leave the alcoholic in his misery; we do not keep giving the addict more drugs; we try to excise the blight of illness – physical and mental. We do all we can to restore persons to the image and likeness of God in which they were created. But we do not define them by the blight.
It works the same way with our successes and accomplishments. When we ask someone newly-met, “So what you do?” we are too often asking, “Who are you?” But you are not your job or your income or your station in life; you are probably much more interesting than that, and I need to take the time to ferret out what particular likeness of God you have been especially blessed with.
It’s a matter of definition. “We have tended to define ourselves and one another,” says Newell, “in terms of the blight, in terms of sin or evil, in terms of the failings or illnesses of our lives.” Better, he adds, and I vote for this, that we look deeper still, and define ourselves in terms of “the beauty of the image of God at the core our being.”
Marjorie George is editor of ReflectionsOnline and Reflections magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.