The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Redeeming a year

This week I closed a chapter of life, quitting two part-time jobs and moving 400 miles from friends who had become family to take an unpaid internship at a publishing company. Since graduating nearly a year ago, hope for a 'real job' has been slowlychipped away. It has been a very difficult year that has tested my resolve, resiliency, and perserverence. Regretfully, I come out of it more cynical, thoroughly more frustrated, and more resistant to optimism. I will not bore you with the details. Still, it is with a strong dose of skepticism guarding my hope that I step out to take this, my best opportunity yet.

Nonetheless, this year has been beneficial somehow, I'm sure of that. Five years from now, I will see that. This year is still too close to me see clearly: I must step back in order to see it as it is. I will do that someday.

Anyway, I can reflect on these two jobs and what I've taken away from them. I am determined to redeem something good from this year.

In December, I took on the second of my two jobs as a Personal Care Assistant for a 17-year-old boy with Down's Syndrome. M also has a verbal disorder impairing his ability to communicate. Basically, he simply made a lot of meaningless noise, although it was not random; he repeated two phrases which I never diciphered: phonetically-- 'da kyip' and 'da carefuh.' Who knows. I first began working with M two summers ago, and, needing to makes ends meet now, I took up working with him again.

If you are looking for substantive reflections on living and working with the mentally disabled, I hear Henri Nouwen's book 'The Road to Peace' is worth a read. His reflections will be much more intelligent than mine.

In any regard, I would like to submit a few observations of my own.

M and I would circumnavigate a lake most days it was nice. It was 2-3 miles around, and it took 2+ hours to complete. Needless to say, he was an interminably slow mover. There were bursts of energy where he would sprint away wildly, head and arms flailing. I never had to run after him though. I knew he would eventually stop--as unexpectedly as he started--to pull up his calf-high white socks. He was always fidgeting with them. Other times he would stand still, blankly, or exceptionally focused; it was like the his computer screen just froze. I learned that Love is Slow.

Imagine: this is an overweight teen with below average intelligence and limited communication. He can make no provision for your satisfaction in this relationship. He taps on the dinner table when he's hungry; he points to his back when he wants you to push him on the swing; he clutches your arm with surprising strength and pushes when he's fearful. The rest of the time he's happily oblivious to you--generally in the form of disobedience. You prod along, but wait mostly. You help and protect, but mostly it's a matter of being willing to slow down, to take the time and understand. Love waits.

Still, M could make me so mad. He often changed clothes when he came home from wherever. Thus, it was generally a good idea to find appropriate attire when we left the house again. Getting him to change could be infuriating. I resorted at times to prying his shirt off while he would adamantly hold his arms at his sides with surprising resistance. Many times I had to walk away, furious, to calm down. It seems a simple, stupid thing, hardly worth getting angry over. But he was uncooperative about the most normal things. Refusing to get out of the car. Refusing to continue our walk after sitting down on a bench. Refusing to eat a cheeseburger or a hamburger with anything but ketchup on it. The activities that make sense, those that would be beneficial for M, he simply resisted.

But, in truth, M didn't make me angry, I made myself angry. At times, I believed him to be vindictive, thwarting all I was trying to do. Working with someone like M, you begin to see yourself differently. You question why you do things a certain way, why you follow socially acceptable patterns, why you value following certain protocol. All these activities that you simply take for granted, and believe everyone else does too, are turned on their ear. I discovered that for the most part, I was imagining M's devious intentions: he wasn't doing things to spite me or because he was ill-disposed to my directives; he was simply a creature of habit like the rest of us. Perhaps, he was more set in those habits than some of us, but I realized that most of our conflict arose in my own inability to adjust my own habits. I was just as habitual as M was, but unlike him, I responded with anger when he was uncooperative; to me, he responded mostly with indifference. In a way, he handled frustration better than I.

It's amazing the reactions that M elicits in public. Babies, dogs, and adults alike have a tendency to stare, uncontrollably it seems. I watch them each. How in the world do babies or dogs recognize that M is not normal? Meanwhile, young people and adults look at him defensively, cautious for when he might lunge suddenly at them or drool in their general direction. They watch him voyeuristically as though they are trying to determine what's wrong with him, wondering what grotesque mannerisms he has.

Despite their stares and lurid curiosity, M is more normal than you first realize. After eight months, I began to see just how normal he is. He can do more tasks than I first expected of him. Though he can't speak, he plays simple computer games and manuevers on a computer well with a little teaching. He can't solve complex equations or drive a car but neither can most of us remember the order of algebraic operations or maintain a spotless driving record. Neither can we adjust our way of doing things without frustration. We too make a lot of meaningless noise, hoping someone will take the time, invest the energy, and love us enough to understand.