You may have not known it, but April was “Autism Awareness Month.” As part of its observance, the Washington Post ran a column on April 26th by Katherine Osnos Sanford entitled “Want to know what it’s really like to have a child with autism?”
The question was a rhetorical one. Most people really don’t want to know what it’s like. (As you read these words, imagine me wearing, as Horatio told Hamlet about the ghost he had seen, a “countenance more in sorrow than in anger.”) Especially when they are told, “I stay up at night worrying about who will care for my child when I no longer can.”
As I have told readers previously, I can relate, especially to the worries that keep her up at night. (My own son has made tremendous progress, for which I can only thank God. On a regular basis, David does and/or says something that, to borrow a phrase from Eric Metaxas’ book “Miracles,” is God’s way of winking at me and saying “You stink at predicting the future. David’s story is in My hands and you have no idea how it’s going to end.”)
David’s mom and I have concluded that the answer to “who will care for our son when we no longer can” will have to be “home-brewed.” We will have to create it, drawing our inspiration from various sources and adapting them to David’s needs and strengths, as well as those of people like him.
Our conclusion is based on what it means to care for people like our son (actually, for any child). Sanford rightly cites the lack of resources, especially after her daughter “ages out,” i.e., turns 21 or thereabouts. I have written about the daunting prospects facing families of older autistic children. And I have firsthand experience of the kind of facility Sanford described in her piece: “Picture a room filled with people whose bodies are adult but whose behaviors are those of young children. Some did small craft projects, gluing Scrabble pieces to magnets; some just sat and rocked back and forth; some paced around, with their hands flapping.”
More than ever, I believe what I wrote five years ago: “Creating a society that honors the sanctity and dignity of human life costs money. It can’t be done on the cheap and it requires a collective commitment. To be clear, by ‘collective,’ I mean government. There are volunteers doing wonderful things to help people like Dana and their families, but calling it a ‘drop in the bucket’ not only would involve invoking a cliché, it would also exaggerate the impact.”
At the same time, taking care of our children is about more than money. It requires the recognition that, in the words of the great Jean Vanier, “each person is sacred, no matter what his or her culture, religion, handicap, or fragility. Each person is created in God’s image; each one has a heart, a capacity to love and to be loved.” It requires people who are willing to “show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance.”
Obviously, government, no matter how well-intended, can’t provide this. Who can?
The obvious answer is “the family.” If you define the way it was defined in, to borrow a phrase from Jared Diamond, “the world until yesterday,” you would be right. But we don’t live in that world, especially not in the West.
In the world until yesterday, “family” meant “extended families,” where people lived in close proximity to their kin, often under the same roof. In today’s world, “family” almost invariable means the “nuclear family,” i.e., “a pair of adults and their children.”
Actually, a better term might be “atomized family” because these units operate largely in isolation from anything else, including, often, their own kin. They might see their relatives, who increasingly live hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away, once or twice a year. (I’m not assigning blame to anyone. More often than not, the separation is due to circumstances, mostly economic, beyond their control.)
Throw in the fact that, in an era of declining birthrates, people have fewer and fewer kin, and answering Sanford’s question with “her family” brings to mind H. L. Mencken’s quip that “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
This is part of the reason why our answer to Sanford’s question is “something that doesn’t exist yet.” I described what this “something” might look like a few years ago. Taking my inspiration from various sources, such as Vanier’s L’Arche and the Scandinavian cohousing movement, I wrote about “intentional Christian communities I only partly in jest call ‘islands of misfit toys.’ It’s where everyone who doesn’t fit the marketing brochure idea of a Christian family . . . pledge[s] their lives to each other in ways that go beyond Sunday mornings and/or Wednesday night small groups. Part of the pledge is that everyone believes that we all have something to teach other about what it means to be an image-bearer.”
Recent events have David’s mom and I thinking that this vision is something worth researching and pursuing.
Obviously, there is a need for it. But it’s also increasingly clear that we are living in, to borrow John Stonestreet’s phrase, a “cultural moment” where this kind of alternative makes sense. Although it is a work in progress, Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has done us all a service by prompting Christians to ask questions about the forms of community that are most conducive to human flourishing and Christian faithfulness.
I would add that it’s pointless to talk about community without taking into account the role of proximity. Can something really be called a “community” if its members all need to get in their cars to gather together? I increasingly have my doubts. How well can you know someone if most of your encounters occur within pre-defined roles—for instance, at church on Sundays or during small group meetings—and almost never informally or by chance?
Rod’s “Benedict Option” and our “Island of Misfit Toys” were both inspired by the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre. The “Benediction Option” takes its name from the final words of “After Virtue,” while mine is inspired by his later book “Dependent Rational Animals.”
In it, MacIntyre writes that human life, at its best, is characterized by a “network of relationships of giving and receiving” in which what we are called “to give may be quite disproportionate to what [we] have received and . . . those to whom [we are] called upon to give may well be those from whom [we] shall receive nothing.”
That’s true for all of us. Sanford’s daughter and my son cannot disguise or deny their dependence. We can, which only makes us less honest, not less dependent, than them.
Then there’s the possibility for Christian witness. In the run-up to Mother’s Day, the Washington Post ran a piece on the series finale of “The Good Wife,” a show I have never watched. The lead character, played by Julianna Margulies, is said to have “triumphed” because “she has left the orbit of other people’s problems.” She is “finished trying to clean up anyone’s messes except her own.”
“The orbit of other people’s problems.” When Christians talk about individualism and our preoccupation with personal autonomy, what they virtually always have in mind is morality, usually sexual morality. But do individualism and personal autonomy get any more toxic than equating personal triumph with leaving “the orbit of other people’s problems?”
One of the things that set early Christians apart from their non-Christian neighbors was the way that they overcame the forces and practices, including class stratification, that kept people apart. They were able, in the words of the late Robert McAfee Brown, “to turn a crowd into a community”—a community that eventually transformed the Roman Empire.
In Acts 2, Luke provides us with a glimpse: shared resources, shared meals, shared worship, and shared lives. This is the way it’s supposed to be. (That it didn’t always work out that way can be seen in St. Paul’s epistles, especially his correspondence with the church in Corinth.) The result? “And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Why not now?
I’m only beginning to think through what my little piece of the alternative would look like. There are obvious, and plenty of not-so-obvious, questions, not the least of them logistical questions, that need to be addressed. But I’m convinced it needs to be done.
I’ve never asked my readers (all 17 of them) to do anything, but there’s a time for everything. I need your help to gauge the interest in the Fellowship of St. Charlie-in-the-Box. So, if you know someone who might be interested, share this column with them. Thank you.
For David, Ben, Josh, Max, Arthur, and Joe. For Jonathan, Daniel, Jun Ho, Ashley, Kyle, Matthew, Peter, and Gundam. For Allison, Rachel, Dana, Jennifer, Charlton, Tim, Rekha, and Carlos. And for the people who love them.
“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” Jean Vanier
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