I had a life-altering experience one weekend in college.
I volunteered to help and spend time with a group of adults with developmental disabilities at Camp Sharing Meadows in Rolling Prairie, Indiana. In our dystopian novel, In the Shadows of Freedom, these adults would be considered part of those called, “The Unfit.”
This group includes anyone who has some illness, challenge, or other trait which distances one from the “perfect” freedom for which the society strives. The homeless, the terminally ill, those with developmental disabilities: all of these are cast out into the shadows and labeled, “The Unfit” by the ruling party of the novel.
What follows is a poetic essay I composed soon after returning from that formative weekend.
No Other Beds
A cramped room filled with half-a-dozen identical wooden bunk beds presents me with a task. The mattresses’ naked forms cry out for dressing, yet I think not of my own bed. I am an only child. This has trained me well to consider only myself, for there was rarely anyone else around to consider. Of course I’ll clothe my own bed first. There are no other beds besides mine, or at least none that I have ever known.
But now I am the sudden parent of two small children, Joe and Mark, and they need my help. Parenthood, if only for a weekend, provides a good reconditioning for an only child, or anyone who has developed the disease of self-centeredness. So I leave my sheets and blanket in my suitcase for a while and get on my hands and knees to provide Joe and then Mark with a freshly-linened place to sleep. A small shift in my mind occurs beneath my immediate recognition. Maybe I’ve started to cast my gaze to the ground under the gentle, yet pressing weight of responsibility.
An Unorthodox Parenthood
This is parenthood—to be sure—but it is of quite a strange variety. For you see, Joe and Mark are full-sized adult men, older in years than I. Yet their minds have eluded the marching forward of their bodies, staying forever in that garden of babes we have so long ago evacuated. They can enunciate but a few mutterings, but how they speak to me! What a well-concocted remedy for a soul in such a condition as mine, so cut off from the primordial font of innocence and humility. This humility flows freely through and from these aged children. The crusted-over scabs of arrogance that have long ago congealed over my wounds find themselves slowly washed away by their healing waters. These humble, gentle souls show me the way to spiritual childhood. I never expected so unorthodox a parenthood to become the midwife of my own rebirth.
I’ve lost myself. Thoughts of Joe, Mark, and their companions flood my consciousness. These frolicking giants have interrupted my mind’s usual ruminations upon myself, my past, my future, my needs. I sense now that I am not the only one: I am an immediate part of a circle of innocents. My haughty judgmentalism begins to crumble under the weight of my newfound friends’ towering smallness. I have no time to think of anything other than this new community I have entered. Can love be so natural? Can pride be so foreign? These lovers of goodness have taught my spirit to dance.
I’ve found myself. I’ve found myself when I’ve wholly forgotten myself. For a minute, for an afternoon, for a weekend, I ceased my presumptions and settled into my natural existence as a self-inflated grub. For it is only when we realize its absolute necessity that the metamorphosis can begin. Is it simply my caring after Joe and Mark that causes me to sense this inner change? Yes, this must be part of it.
I hear the wake-up call, open my eyes, and try to shake the sleepiness from my face. Today I don’t jump out of bed to carry out my business as I always do. No, today I have children to take care of and children to take care of me. Joe is standing there with his permanent smile, waving and squealing, welcoming me to another joyous rising of life. Mark has already wandered into another room, smilingly content with every circumstance in which he finds himself. What is it about helping these innocent souls shower and dress that cleanses my hubris and dons me with humility?
In a sense, this is my daily bread, fortifying me against my loveless toils. Too often have I been the one who labors only to fall back. This is a workshop in purity of heart, but how exactly do my teachers instruct? It is only through their own purity of heart. I realize now that I have gained whatever humility I’ve been able to muster—not only just by serving them—but by being with them. In fact I now see my service to them is a mere manifestation of what I was really doing: being present. But what does that mean?
It must mean more than just showing up and coexisting in the same room. Anyone who rides a bus can tell you that’s not “being present.” Rather, presence is a very active undertaking, not the passive one it seems. My job for this weekend is to encounter Mark and Joe and the others, to allow our spirits to mingle, to truly understand one another, to be. This is a natural and constant task for the purer ones, yet for me it is quite an undertaking. My task this weekend is simply to be present to the adults here, to learn how to love them, and to give them all that they need.
The Path to Humility
And who are these ones, my teachers of the humble way? They are the ones the world habituates us to ignore, scorn, and forget. These are perhaps the lowest on the cultural totem pole of success and recognition. But should I take ear to this passing age’s standards of esteem? For what will remain in this world after our fleeting fame slithers away? I can see there is no security in worldly renown. I have stopped adhering to this ever-changing contest of fame and now see the pure of heart as my real heroes. These forgotten ones are my soul’s guides and companions along the steep, painful path to humility.
If only for the weekend, I learned to make others’ beds before my own. My two-day stint as a parent has brought me closer to spiritual childhood. Riches, wealth, abundance: I see now these are not needed to pursue the good life. In fact, I see them now as obstacles. Like a tangled rope around one’s person, these “goods” must be sorted out and put to proper use before they take you to the gallows.
Blessed be the poor in spirit! And there seem to be fewer souls more impoverished in spirit than the ones I meet here. Yet how rich are the poor! It is from them that I have learned to cast my gaze downward and see myself for what I am. It is through my caring for them that I have been washed, if only temporarily, of the filth my pride has wallowed in. Truly the best remedy for arrogance is to be surrounded by the pure of heart. The humility is infectious!