In the award-winning book “The Giver,” author Lois Lowry imagines a dystopian world of sameness. Illness has been eradicated. The society lives with perfect order and perfect manners. There is no sorrow, no vibrant color and no memory of the past.
The elderly are put in homes where they are put to sleep before they get too frail. There are no twins, no fussy children and no people with disabilities.
At a glance, a world such as the one depicted in “The Giver” sounds safe and loving. It is a world of order, where everything makes sense, where pain is eradicated and no one is left to feel uncomfortable. Yet it is a place shut out from impairment or choice.
Would we be better in such a world? Anyone who has raised a mentally disabled child or has cared for an ailing parent or sibling suffering from Alzheimer’s knows about the day-to-day disappointment and heartache. It is a challenge with no easy solution except to get through another day. It is not something that can be fixed. Working with a mentally disabled child, sibling or parent can create family upheaval, marital friction and sometimes the neglect of other family members.
Those who work on the ground, raising and caring for the mentally disabled, spend their lives in the quiet shadows, arm-in-arm with frustration, fatigue and often-truncated dreams. They are the miracle workers.
In his book “The Boy in the Moon,” author Ian Brown describes raising his severely disabled child Walker, who was born with CFC syndrome. He poses the ethical question that he struggles with, that society struggles with: Is there a purpose for keeping such a child alive — a child who will never talk or write or sing or ride a bicycle or even acknowledge his own parents, a child who costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to live in a group home with full-time caretakers? What is the benefit to society of such a life?
In “The Giver,” such a child would not be allowed to live. He would be considered a negative asset to the community, to the order and procedure of the society’s cloistered world.
There are places around the globe were this unsettling thinking still prevails. In the United States, we have come a long way in our care for the mentally disabled. Children who might at one time have been sent to an asylum or hospital are now raised at home and integrated into the schools. We have services that allow for special education, equipment and therapies. These services vary wildly from state to state and county to county, which means we still have a long way to go, but certainly we have a heightened awareness and desire to help those who don’t fit in mainstream society.
To me, this is one of the most hopeful trends for the future. When we put measures in place to support and assist the mentally disabled, we send a powerful message of caring and compassion. We show that ours is a society that values the life of each human being, regardless of his or her output or ability to contribute.
In return, the mentally disabled give us a gift. They give us allowance to breathe kindness and understanding. Through them, we learn patience and tolerance. We learn that love happens in strange and miraculous ways toward people who cannot speak or feed themselves or count to 10 or tie their shoelaces. They strip us down to the most basic of human emotion.
They are an outward reminder that we are all impaired, that we are all in need of a healer who can clear blindness from our eyes, open our ears and soften our hearts. We are certainly most like Jesus Christ when we exhibit the kind of love and service he showed during his mortal ministry.
As a child, I loved the movie “Awakenings,” the true story of a doctor who found a drug that, for a short time, awakened the elderly patients in his hospital from their catatonic state. As the drug took effect, the patients came alive to the world. They danced, sang, wore rouge and fell in love before reverting back to their listless selves.
I imagine heaven to be like that hospital. It will be a great awakening in which we see the mentally disabled in a perfected state, the way Christ sees them, the way he sees all of us.