This past Saturday I showed up to facilitate an art therapy class for disabled / autistic people. It had been a few months since the last class and getting back into the swing for winter semester was no easy task; truth be told, it was quite difficult. I had come into the day with a mind preoccupied by seemingly weightier things, at least in my estimation, bigger fish to fry than help helpless folk push paint around on oversize canvases. It was hard for me not to be distracted. I was moody, and pensive, and the irritating demands of these handicapped people reminded me too much of the irritating demands of my own children. Except these were not my children.
As the day progressed, I wondered if they sensed my “energy” and several events got me thinking that perhaps they could. First, I was resisted by a very large autistic man, who honestly, frightened me. As I spoke quiet, but firm “no’s” to his attempts to grab random brushes and to put paint everywhere but on canvas, I was cautiously vigilant and wary that he would lash out. Instinctively, I felt the need to protect myself.
That same instinct would prove necessary for a second incident, where a much smaller guy – but surprisingly equally as strong – was having a bad day and decided to completely flip over two buckets of paint water. In a fit of misdirected frustration he clawed me (I have the bruises on my left bicep to prove it) and even attempted to bite me. I got away. So did he, leaving a hurricane trail of destruction in his wake.
It was a tough day.
Afterwards, as we had to clean up the mess, I found my irritation further amplified by a few ineffectual high school student volunteers who stood around unable to be self-directed, as if I had to spell out: “This Is How You Clean Up.” They were young. Shocked.
I’ve had time since then, to reflect on this past Saturday. I found solace in the words of Nouwen and Vanier, which I share below:
Severely handicapped people often sense the mood of their assistants and the atmosphere in their foyer with an uncanny accuracy. When there is harmony and peace in the house they are happy and content, but when there is conflict and tension in the air they often pick it up and act it out before their assistants are fully aware of it. They are true barometers of the human spirit. And, as one assistant said: “It is not always easy to live with people who so directly reveal to you your own ups and downs.”
Community, as I have said, is a place of pain, of the death of ego. In community we are sacrificing independence and the pseudo-security of being closed up. We can only live this pain if we are certain that for us being in community is our response to a call from God. If we do not have this certitude of faith then we will not be able to stay in community. I see this very much in our own communities. People will come to L’Arche attracted by the community, they like our community. They like it , and it’s great, for a few days! When somebody says to me, ` I find it very painful to live in this community, but I’m here because God has called me here,` then I know that person has made a passage from dream to reality. They have found their place. We will only stay in community if we have gone through the passage from choosing community to knowing that we have been chosen for community. It is for us the place of purification, and of support, given to us by Jesus, that will lead us to a deeper love and liberation, a place where cleansed of our egocentric attitudes we will be able to give new life to others.
Appropriately, these words orient me not just to the challenges of working among the disabled, but to the challenges of being in community. They speak to me not just about the work of handicapped ministry but the work of community. It is here – among the hinterlands and its residents – where I am struggling to liberate self from selfishness, to repudiate my own lust for vainglory – and to find the elusive contentment that my soul so needs.
(above quotes, respectively, Lifesigns, Henri Nouwen; From Brokenness to Community, Jean Vanier)