Saturday, October 17, 2009

Unconditional Love? Maybe not so much!!! (Part 2)

I know, I know, I promised to post part two of this blog yesterday, but if I’m being completely honest I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this concept of love that is selfless and unconditional. I simply wasn’t ready to conclude this idea yesterday and I’m not even sure that I’m ready now. But, I guess I’ll probably never be ready so I’m just going to dive in head first. Here are a couple of quotes from the book "Blue Like Jazz" that struck a chord in me:

“The problem with Christian culture is we think of love as a commodity. We use it like money…. With love, we with(o)ld affirmation from the people who d(o) not agree with us, but we lavishly finance the ones who d(o)…. When we barter with it (love), we all lose. When the church does not love its enemies, it fuels their rage. It makes them hate us more.”

“Nobody will listen to you unless they sense that you like them. If a person senses that you do not like them, that you do not approve of their existence, then your religion and your political ideas will all seem wrong to them. If they sense that you like them, then they are open to what you have to say.”

This brings me to a very personal story I’d like to share with you. I will warn you in advance that if you don’t follow this story through to the end you might conclude that I’m being arrogant and self-serving, but if you’ll patiently endure the details of the story, I promise you that the point will be well made. One more disclaimer: I must also warn you that it will make some of you uncomfortable, as these are issues we’d rather pretend aren't there because it's not politically correct to talk about such things.

I’ve never liked Winn Dixie. Maybe it’s because it always struck me as a “poor man’s” store, and since I didn’t like the way it made me feel I just didn’t shop there. That is until I was forced, for, shall we say reasons of convenience, to shop at the Winn Dixie nearest my home in Lake Mary. I don’t know if it’s an official policy, but Winn Dixie hires a lot of handicapped and disabled people and this store appeared to be trying to win a competition for how many such people they could have on their team at one time.

Each time I went there I would notice how many disabled staff people wandered around and would throw a friendly wave in their direction then pat myself on the back for being such a ‘good’ Christian. After all, most of the other folks in the store simply ignored them and went about their business. One day I decided to introduce myself to a quadriplegic that I’d often noticed in an elaborate recumbent wheelchair. He would often position his chair strategically by the store entrance looking stone-faced at busy shoppers going in and out in a hurry as they lived out their busy lives. Ostensibly his job was to welcome people as they entered the store but his demeanor made most shoppers look the other way. I walked up to him and said, “My name’s Joseph, what’s yours?” “David” he replied, beaming from ear to ear. Then he continued, “I’ve often noticed you coming in here but you always looked so scary and mean.” Ouch!!! My Christian ego had just taken a deflating beating.

It turns out that in addition to being a quadriplegic, David also suffers from a mild case of cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome. Down’s syndrome is associated with some impairment of cognitive ability and physical growth as well as facial appearance. I proceeded to have one of the most amazing conversations with David, all the while thinking how smart and well spoken he was. I’d made a judgment about David the first time I laid eyes on him. I assumed he wouldn’t be coherent and he’d be severely mentally handicapped. The ‘single story' of people afflicted with Down’s syndrome not being smart or intelligible, had led me to believe that David had nothing to contribute to my life. The funny thing is, I know the feeling of back-handed compliments, yet I was doing exactly the same thing as I expressed my surprise at how well David spoke and processed ideas.

All my life living in the West I’ve been judged on the single story: The story that black Africans generally speak with thick, heavy accents and are definitely not as smart or intelligent as their white contemporaries. When people have a conversation with me, they are ‘shocked’ at how well I communicate and process big ideas, and they are quick to tell me how much they love my voice and my “accent.” Now I know that these people are well meaning and all, but the truth is their ‘compliment’ is based on a set of preconceived ideas they have about what people like me should sound like. After all, you won’t find people paying compliments to a white Englishman for sounding English.

I wonder if David feels judged by the single story every time someone walks into the store and completely ignores him, hence his stone-faced expression. Many of us define people by the single story and miss out on so much more. There are numerous dimensions to every person and the more we unconditionally love a person, the easier it is to find out their multi-dimensional stories. As I’ve built a relationship with David, I’ve learned that he was in hospital for three months because he broke his hip trying to move from one wheel chair to another, and the pain is still excruciating as the doctors have told him it will take two years to fully heal since he can’t rehab it. Yet David is at work everyday because that’s the place where life happens. His eyes light up every time I walk into the store and he’ll tell me exactly how many days it’s been since I was last in. We’ve had conversations about the NBA Playoffs, the Superbowl, college football and every thing under the sun, and he is remarkably knowledgeable. David cusses like a banshee (whatever a banshee actually is) and has really pungent breath, but David is a delight to know and talk to. He forces me to put my life in perspective and to be thankful for the things that I can do, especially on the days when I’m throwing a tantrum because I’m mad at my circumstances.

David’s outlook on and approach to life humble me and make me realize that, in the human context, unconditional love may well bring a greater benefit to the one loving than it does to the one receiving love. You see, knowing David has changed my paradigm about the way I view and judge people based on the single story, and so it makes it easier for me to deal with each person on their own individual merit. I don’t know if any of this makes sense to you because I know it’s my journey, but I’m truly thankful for Winn Dixie, David, and unconditional love.


ST said...

And THIS is one of the many reasons I love you so much...!

Thea said...

Thanks for sharing this...I find more and more that much of what I have "known" or have thought that I know is still in process and being re-evaluated. It's so easy to arrogantly find security in what you're taught in church and by those you trust only to realize you never learned the lesson or understood it to begin with. I feel like each day is a process for me in so many ways with regard to my relationship with the Lord and becoming more like Him and I can confidently say I have not mastered any one thing.

Dealing with each individual person on his or her own merit takes energy and also requires compassion; three things we often lack or fail to make use of. I hope I'm able to do that more and more.

For what it's worth I always liked your accent but I never expected you to speak with a thick accent or to be unintelligible. I like English accents of caucasian people too! Most of them aren't as articulate or as big as you are so maybe therein lies the difference! I suppose a large white man who looked like a linebacker with a great accent and wonderful grasp of the English language would be as interesting and notable. Let's face it - how many guys with great accents do you know who aren't skinny white guys? Maybe common across the pond but here - not so much. I also have always loved Sola's smile but I have to also admit that her deep skin tone makes her teeth so gorgeously white and accentuates her eyes so beautifully that it's impossible not to notice! :)

Ash said...

such good reminder to realize that just b/c we don't understand something doesn't make it less than the beauty it contains.

i love your honesty. sure, i would say you might have an intimidating factor (look, being 15 and sitting your BUT b/c of how much love you have for people, it quickly melts anyone who talks w/ you.

and i'm so happy that you've made friends with david, and even moreso that there are places like winn dixie that will offer people like david a job, an opportunity to fit in. their handicap doesn't make them incompetent. my local publix has a couple of guys that i suspect have down-syndrome that are always there, friendly, helping you bag and walk out to your car if necessary.


Jodi Gemma said...

This is great, I love reading it... and like being challenged to love and interact on a much deeper level. Thank you for being a clarion call to the kind of Christianity that makes people want to know our Jesus...

Zonoma said...

My "David" was named Sherri. She still hugs me every time she sees me and I still pray for her every time I think of her. She changed the path I walk on, too.

That first Miller quote- the one about withholding love? I cried when I read that the first time (and the second). I saw myself in that and I was ashamed. Someday, Joseph, someday we will get this stuff well and truly inside of us!

For the record? I LIKE YOUR ACCENT. :P I always have and I always will. There are still times when I struggle with things that I hear you saying, "Jessica, Jessica, Jessica" and it is comforting to know that you saw me for what I was. Pomp and potential.

Hope R. Clark said...

What accent? ;)

No, seriously... well said. Such a good word about withholding love, and learning to instead to give it freely.