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

Monday, October 27, 2008

Perfection and imperfection

As I have stated elsewhere in this blog, Kathi and I have adopted the practice of bringing friends of ours with intellectual disabilities to the Introduction to Special Education class when we teach it. We will bring 3 or 4 friends, interview them briefly, and then just allow our students to have the chance to sit down with the folks, grab a bite to eat and talk about whatever they want. The guest speakers know that they are there to help students understand the lives of people with disabilities, and are prepared to answer any question. At the end of the evening, students write a brief statement of reflection on the evening. Kathi is going through these reflection statements (hundreds of them) and looking at common themes.

In one of the papers, a student wrote,
why else would something perfect create imperfection but to set an example for us to follow
This is the type of thing students will often write, it is interesting from a variety of perspectives, some correct but mostly it is wrong. It is a platitude about disability and who God is.

First, the assumption is that those of us who do not have some recognizable, some diagnosable disability are somehow perfect and that those who do have a disability are somehow imperfect. That is the type of perspective that too many people have about who they are. They see themselves too much as "God's gift" even though they are drowning in their own sin, or trapped in their own vices, or just self impressed people. People with these characteristics are the "perfect" ones and those with some form of disability are the "imperfect" ones. In reality, we are all "imperfect" ones.

Second, God did and does create imperfect people and we all have the opportunity to observe it, from the example of imperfection in each and all of us. Perhaps we who are intellectually at a particular level deny our imperfection and those who are below that number do not have the ability to deny their imperfection. Even if they do, we intelligent ones find it cute or refreshing. We, however, are in more ways than not, identical to those with measured disability though we deny our imperfection.

So, third, in that way, those with disabilities are an example to us of us.
People with disabilities are not an example of imperfection to the perfect. They are an example of imperfection to the imperfect who think themselves perfect.
In that way, they are the example in a refreshing, nonthreatening manner. They do not come to us in their imperfection and say, look at me, follow my example. They come to us in their imperfection, and as we grow to know them and love them and in many ways become like them, we say, "We are all the same." I am imperfect as you are imperfect. But you are also a creation in the Image of God as I am a creation in his image.

Fourth, people with disabilities are just people. This is the profound lesson that I have learned after 30+ years of interaction mostly with people with intellectual disabilities. They are not here to teach me lessons any more that I am here to teach them lessons. They are just people living their lives, and through the living of their lives I have the ability to benefit and learn from them in the same manner that I have the ability to benefit and learn from anyone else. However, to say that they are placed on the earth solely to help me learn something, is once again the result of my prideful self-impressed nature where I see the world revolving around me, and I see myself as perfect and they as something other. I have said elsewhere in this blog, people with disabilities are indispensable (ala 1 Corinthians 12:22), however, their lives have total value in themselves, not because of what they bring to me.
The notion of God creating imperfection is also very subjective. Is intellectual disability, for example, imperfection? It is certainly different. People with intellectual disability cannot do many of the things that people who do not have such a disability can. I am not one of those who denies that intellectual disability is disability. However, I am increasingly understanding intellectual disability more as difference. People can be successful in life with a wide range of ability levels. People also define success in a wide variety of ways. As a Christian, success is very antithetical to society's definition. Increasingly, I am understanding success from a Christian perspective, and I find that intellectual disability often becomes simply a difference relative to that success. It occurs to me that in his wisdom and his kindness, God sets the "success bar" at a level that is accessible to the majority of people, and simply says that to whom much is given much is expected (Luke 12:48). With that in mind, one must reexamine the notion of imperfection. If I haven't been given the intellect or opportunity to be a university professor, for example, am I imperfect? If I haven't the ability to build a wall straight, am I imperfect? If I haven't the ability to hold a family together because I cannot set the emotional tone, am I imperfect? If I haven't the ablilty to love others like a person with intellectual disabilities will often do, am I imperfect? I can choose a standard for perfection that I will succeed at and then use that as my plumb line, or I can use the plumb line that God provides for success and allign myself with that. The notion of perfect and imperfect looks quite different when I allign myself with God's notion of success or perfect.
It is funny that when I do the interviews I mentioned at the beginning, I ask one friend if he has a disability. He typically says, "I don't think so." I then ask what would a person be like if he had a disability? My intellectually disabled friend doesn't talk about wheelchairs, or blindness, or inability to do something. He says "They can't get along with other people, swear a lot and get in fights." You could put a team of experts in disability in a room for a month and they probably would never come up with that criteria as the definition of disability. But I would have to say that my intellectually disabled friend's definition is probably much closer to what God would hold out as disability, as imperfection.


Anonymous said...

"I am imperfect as you are imperfect." -- My new favorite McNair quote!!
I have no other comment... you said it all. Thank you for the reminder!

Anonymous said...

I think you must be in my mind. I was having a Bible study with my daughter the other day and after our conversation I had a thought -- one that you just know is the whispering of the Holy Spirit. I have always assumed in the resurrection my daughter would be raised "healed." Her brain, prenatally affected by alcohol, would be made whole. I realized that if God raised her like this, He wouldn't be raising her. She would experience life different than she does now. She would understand God different than she does now.

And, I realized that is likely me that needs changed. I need a new understanding of what it means to be whole. I need to reprioritize things like success, abilities and perfection.

Great thoughts!

Anonymous said...

I am in absolute amazement that a student actually feels this way, in reference to their perspective of "why else would something perfect create imperfection but to set an example for us to follow?". Simultaneously, I am saddened that many students have expressed similar perspectives. Phillippians 2:3 states, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility, consider others better than yourselves." This verse has impacted my life in that in everything I do, I try to apply this verse to every aspect of my life. For example, if someone frustrates me because they were incredibly rude; I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and I simply figure that they are having a horrible day, and that it has nothing to do with me personally. When it comes to the intellectually disabled, I automatically consider them as better than myself, because perhaps it is the case that they do not know any better when they are doing something that they should not be doing. I, on the other hand, can decipher the difference between what is right and what is wrong, and often times I choose to do what is wrong anyway.
We all have disabilities of some nature in our lives; each of us can always find something that someone else is better at than we are. God created each of us in His image, not just some of us. When we think about God, we synonymously think of perfection. I do believe that God creates all people as "imperfect". If He created perfect people, there would be no point in sacificing Jesus, the only perfect person to ever walk the face of the earth. I cannot agree more with Dr. McNair's statement, "In reality, we are all 'imperfect' ones." This idea is reaffirmed by Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Emphasis needs to be placed on the word "all" in this scripture. We have ALL sinned, we are all sinners, we are all imperfect.
With regards to the idea that Dr. McNair presented about learning life lessons from interacting with one another, I have learned that when I am around someone with an intellectual or physical disability, I see Jesus through their eyes. Strange as it may sound, when one spends time with the "disabled", you experience and observe innocence and genuine happiness. It certainly makes me want to emulate Jesus.

shayeshaye said...

When I think of perfection, I think of Jesus and the attributes that He possesses. No one on earth possesses all that Jesus is and never will come close. I would consider everyone imperfect. To classify a person having a disability as imperfect, and not yourself is absurd. I find more of Jesus' attributes in some persons with intellectual disabilities than in myself. I was blessed to spend time with adults with intellectual disabilities at a ranch in Arizona called Rainbow Acres. These people showed me more humility and love than I'd ever seen before. It wasnt a show; they were living their lives. I saw this in their everyday acts. It is because of some of them, that I now follow Christ. I realize that I am most satisfied when I seek perfection that Jesus is; not when I seek pefection that society believes is perfection. Yes we are all imperfect, but I find more Jesus like qualities in persons with disablities than I do in myself and others with the same intellectual abilities as myself.