“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A confession

I have a friend named Thom who is a person who has a cognitive disability. You might even say it is a severe disability. I have known Thom for probably 8 years. He comes to my church and I visit his group home. Our interactions have largely revolved around him saying things like,
"I got paid this week. A hundred dollars!"
"You know that man on the radio? He sings good!"
"I was good this week, will you give me a hundred dollars?" (he means one dollar)

These phrases are repeated over and over and over. My interactions with him over the past years have revolved around him approaching me and repeating one of the above statements. I would respond, hopefully, in a friendly affirming manner, but no doubt distracted manner.

But a couple of weeks ago, I had him visit the campus at Cal Baptist with me. He had my undivided attention for several hours. The result was that I realized how I had never given this friend of mine sufficient time to express himself to me because he never had my undivided attention. I was impressed once again by this last evening when I visited him at his group home. We shared a bag of jelly belly jellybeans and discussed everything from changes in his room, to his friends at work, to clothing he liked to wear, to baseball, to the jellybean flavors we were sampling together. I left the group home in repentence over the fact that I had never given this person whom I referred to as my friend, the time I would have given other friends of mine. I am now committed to working on our friendship, by being the friend to him that he was trying to be to me. His repetitive statements were efforts for me to see him as a person, as a person who wanted to be my friend. However, with his limited intellect he could do little more than repeat phrases that he probably had learned would get a response from me. I enjoyed his statements about his paycheck or the music he listened to, and I often gave him a dollar.

A student of mine shared with me something I had shared with her and my class on many occasions. That is, that the more time you spend with people with mental retardation, the more "normal" they seem to you. The fact of the matter is that they ARE normal, just different than most everyone else who are all the same. It is true that I at times enjoy my friends with mental retardation more than my friends without. It is true that I am growing more impatient with people without disabilities as I grow in friendship with people with cognitive disabilities (probably not a good thing, but reality nonetheless). It is true that Thom seems more "normal" to me because I have been taking the time to talk with him and be with him and really get to know him. Untill I did that, he was always a little crazy. Now I recognize that I am too busy, he is not crazy.

Another friend of mine wondered about when we could get together. I responded I would love to (I really would) but at this particular moment in my life, I am very busy. His response, probably out of frustration with me and others like me was "Busy, busy, busy. Everybody is too busy." He cut me to the quick. I communicate to him how important I think he is by the amount of time I spend with him. It is almost like he is telling me, "I am a person worth getting to know, worth being your friend, worth your time. You are missing out on my friendship."

It is true that I am.

I have danced with the idea of buying a different home with many rooms so that people would be in more of a community together. But I have got to understand that I cannot do it all as much as I might want to. That is why there is a church. In the same manner that my church cannot meet the needs of all the people with disabilities in my region of the country, I cannot meet the needs for friendship of all the people in my community. The church needs to step up and do the simple thing of taking the time to make friends.

May God help us to do so.



Anonymous said...

Oh, thank you for this post. I have been struggling, as well, in getting the nerve to start a friendship with someone. My dilema was that communication with my nonverbal friend right now has to be through this woman's family. I am pretty shy and not very assertive. But you made me remember that getting to know my friend B is worth it.

- Julie R. Oklahoma City

Mark said...

I recently read a book by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen lived in a community called L'Arche (French fot "The Ark") for people with cognitive disabilities. He speaks of the value of the gift of time. Those of us without severe impairments have so little of it; disabled prople have so much--and so much of it alone.

I have a new friend with severe disabilities I want to invite to church but I am so far unable to "find" time to learn how to work his feeding tube. Because of that he can't be alone with me for the 2 or 3 hours church and Bible class would cost. I have cheated my friend and I need to pay him back. Now.