Self-reflection has become a critical personal discipline for my life. This practice offers me the opportunity to examine actions I have taken, words spoken, and thoughts I have meditated on throughout the year. Self-reflection is a humbling practice as it allows an individual to face him or herself.
I think we are all in need of a little bit of self-reflection during this period of our societal history. We are not as holy as we make ourselves out to be on a daily basis. We are not as just and merciful to others as we would want others to be with our own actions and words. We are not as civil as we think we are in the 21st Century America.
What a strange word.
This word invokes images of peaceful interactions between persons. Persons who have equally chosen to place themselves in positions in which there are no religious, social, political, or economic hierarchies. I imagine civility as the embodiment of two human beings on a journey of questioning, discovery, and understanding.
Civility should produce friends.
Then I realized something. In order for civility to be embodied in human beings it necessitates the acknowledgement of a human being’s personhood. Rufus Burrow identifies a zeitgeist or spirit of the age in which persons are not appropriately given the consideration of their inherent worth. If I am not willing to acknowledge the dignity of the person with whom I am engaging within a form of communication the result will not be beneficial to either of us. If I desire to see civility I have to do something different.
As I reflect on this past year, I worked hard to provide a platform for people, primarily on social media, to discuss topics of race, poverty, and other social issues. Sometimes the topics went very well while other times I just shook my head and chose to delete the whole interaction. I realized I was contributing to the incivility I was seeking to reduce.
Breath changes people.
When a person feels, touches, and sees another person the opportunity for change is possible. That is what happened to John and his friends in first century Palestine with a Jewish Rabbi who embodied the breath of God. Social media is a poor platform for interaction because people are not face to face. Our ability to feel appropriately, touch a hand, and see facial expressions are significantly hindered. Social media many times creates opportunities for persons to diminish themselves through disrespectful and dehumanizing comments which prevent any type of meaningful engagement, discovery, and understanding. I have observed even the most encouraging statement can descend into ugliness.
So now as 2019 approaches I need to exhale in the presence of other living persons. I want people to recapture the power and beauty of inspiration through the virtue of human presence.
Noam Chomsky stated “freedom produces opportunity and culminates in responsibility.” I have a responsibility to people in the area in which I live to cultivate civility. Why? (Only God knows.) Whatever the case, I understand my small platform and will pursue opportunities to advance the dignity of persons.
What will this look like?
Join me for self-reflection, civility, and the opportunity to experience the breath of another human being.
Martha Nussbaum who writes on the human experience and capabilities, states, “When comparing societies and assessing them for their basic decency or justice, we ask, “What is each person able to do and to be?” We are not means to an end, human beings are the end. There are a multitude of situations which function as barriers at the social, economic, and political level slowing or in some cases stopping human beings from seeing who they truly are and what they can truly accomplish.
Persons in a variety of societal environments play a critical role in either creating barriers or tearing down barriers for persons who are to be considered neighbors. In essence we have a responsibility to each other and we have been granted the opportunity to address life which Nussbaum describes as being “entrenched with social injustice and inequality.”
Engaging in the difficult work of identifying existing barriers requires persons with different perspectives to engage with one another. We can admittedly observe our current climate has produced situations in which people have chosen to assume tribal behaviors, boundaries marked by political ideology, national origins, ethnicities, and yes, even faith.
If our goals are to build an environment to improve the situations of other persons, relieve personal and systemic injustices, and create an environment for successive generations, we must have plans which begin with the end in mind. In other words, humanizing and just outcomes necessitate humanizing and just means.
In the words of Nussbaum, we are capable of such activity in the support of problem of solving many our societal concerns, if we choose to practice them on a daily basis.
Persons with special needs are image bearers of God. Our world, our societies are not normalized for persons with special needs. These men, women, and children pursue lives in which they must determine how to function in a “normal world” with their associated “need.”
We use words such as “disability, limitation, or developmentally delayed” labeling these persons as others. What if these “others” have something very profound to share with us “normal” persons? What can these men, women, and children teach us about patience, anger, and hope? I believe these men, women, and children by their unique lived experience have something to teach us about God and the profound desire to recognized as persons with much to offer.
In our country, approximately 24.8 million persons have been diagnosed with some form of autism. Autism has a spectrum and as such it manifests in multiple ways. In communication, there can be limitations in natural speech which can impact meeting the daily needs of life. In behavior, persons with autism have been stereotyped as rockers, erratic movement of the hands, and compulsive actions. For some there is the need for consistency and not change. The need for a daily routine which should not be changed. What causes autism? There are studies about environmental impacts and other studies have identified autism occurring because of differences in the genetics of an individual. Whatever the case, Dr. Steven Shore who has autism states, “every autistic person has unlimited potential.”
Meditate on those words. Every. Autistic. Person. Has. Unlimited. Potential.
The person with autism is not retarded rather he or she experiences the world differently, learns differently, and thus responds differently. Certainly, there are moments when confusion and frustration become paramount. Her unique way to communicate a need, to desire attention and affirmation may not come the way I express myself. This no less diminishes the fact she has much to offer and I must ask myself, “Am I willing to listen?”
In Psalm 88 the autistic musician finds himself in isolation and in need of comfort. He is an overwhelming emotional state because he finds himself alienated from those who should be his brothers and sisters. He wrestles with the existential question, “God are you near?
Like the rising and setting of the sun his cries for the acknowledgement of his person are continual. He has cries which are verbal and nonverbal. His cries may not be discernible words but utterance God alone can understand. Whatever the cry, it rises and falls with the movement of the sun. The morning rises over the eastern horizon and it is accompanied with groans. After the long day, she sets like a blazing fire along the Pacific Ocean and his cries put her to bed as an anguished lullaby.
Maybe his autism falls within a spectrum in which he finds himself in continual isolation. The only way he can characterize this loneliness is as an impending death. His loneliness is Sheol. He has been put down into the depths of a deep and dark pit and his question goes to God, “Do you have any awareness of my human experience? Am I to be treated as someone who has been left for dead? Will anyone remember me?!” God, are you angry with me….”
There are approximately 24.8 million autistic psalmists. We must ask ourselves are we welcoming to them in our churches, our places of businesses, and schools. If we “normal people” are the land of the living and in our desire to remain comfortable we carry these men and women to isolation, darkness, and deep places, we are losing the opportunity to learn and be blessed by their presence.
So, the psalmist in verses eight through twelve reflects on his treatment by others. From his vantage point he has been shunned and viewed as a horror. “You are not normal. You are a behavior problem.” The psalmist poses the deep question which we all share, “God do you take notice? Does your love which saves the soul of a man, extend to my current human experience?” This autistic psalmist offers us the courage to ask this question out loud and the faith God’s steadfast love is not lost.
He concludes his psalm once again appealing to day long emotional toil of his prayer. What he asks for is simply profound. He asked to be noticed by God and by his companions. He acknowledges the mystery of God withdrawing his beloved and his friend but we can see by implication he desires companionship. Acknowledgement. Affirmation.
This week remember those persons with special needs. Take time to affirm their presence. Be warmed by their smile. Act as the physical hand of God and touch them. In doing so, you will discover Christ is there and you will discern good news from their presence. You will sense their unlimited potential as image bearers of God.