Here are some great thoughts from my wife, who typed this up and sent it to me while she was out of town for a few day. It begins with an extended excerpt from a new biography of the Inklings.
“The Four Loves sustains the avuncular tones of the recorded talks as Lewis analyzes four forms of love: affection, friendship, Eros and Charity. The first three arising in the natural order of things may be beautiful or good but have the potential to be twisted into something ugly and destructive. Thus, Storche, or affection, the warm animal love between mother and child or dog and master May become a tyrannous stranglehold, as Lewis explains in a passage that may reflect his experiences with Mrs. Moore. If people are already unlovable, a continual demand on their part as a right to be loved: their manifest sense of injury; their reproaches, weather loud and clamorous or merely implicit in every book and gesture of resentful self-pity produce in us a sense of guilt (they are intended to do so), for a fault we could not have avoided and cannot cease to commit. Friendship, too, maybe perverted into exclusivity. Yet it offers incomparable joys, as in Lewis’s glowing account of male friends, gathering in an inn after a hard day’s walking, which doubles as an idealized portrait of the Inklings. Those are the golden sessions: when our slippers are on, our feet spread out toward the blaze, and our drinks at our elbows. When the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk. And all are free men and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time and affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life, natural life, has no better gift to give; who could have deserved it? Eros, too, which binds two individuals together, transforming them into lover and the beloved, harbors its deadly snares, such as obsession and uncontrolled passion. Charity, however, stands alone. Charity, Agape, is supernatural: a sheer gift. Love Himself working in a man. It allows us to do what we would not ordinarily do: Embrace our enemies, kiss lepers, give away money, take on the sufferings of others. Through Charity, we draw close both to God, and to our fellow human beings. Lewis rejects the idea, which he discerns in Augustine’s account of the loss of his friend, Nebridius, that one must beware of creaturely love and embrace only God, who never dies. Instead, he stands with Charles Williams, without mentioning him by name, arguing that human and divine love complement and complete one another. And, that in the beatific vision, the culmination of Charity we will find our earthly beloveds in their completion and consummation, united in God.”
Excerpt from “The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, c. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams”, By Phillip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
Because Lewis defines Charity as coming at the sole impetus of God, he doesn’t acknowledge that Charity also can be warped, or perhaps misdefined, as in the case of unwanted pity, or misplaced altruism. Possibly because Lewis was rarely on the receiving end of such charity, it didn’t really register on his radar, but people with disabilities, especially in the modern era of technology when independence is more achievable, have to push back against this concept continually. When we were adopting our daughter, for instance, we received several comments about our “saintliness” with regards to read adopting a child who has a disability. The idea that parental affection can exist for a child with a disability in equal measure to a non-disabled child did not seem to occur to most people. Additionally, people who have disabilities are rarely seen as bringing in equal measure to the table qualities and attributes which a non-disabled person might covet. Therefore a parent would have to be a “saint” to parent a child with so much less to offer.
This brings us naturally to a discussion of Lewis’s second love: friendship, which he describes rather vividly as existing between “equal and free men”. Interestingly, one of the equal and free men to which Lewis undoubtedly refers, and greatly admired, was Charles Williams who had a significant vision impairment of the sort which inhibited many of his activities. However, he was not encouraged to discuss his vision with his circle of friends; no record of it occurs in any correspondence or records of their interchanges. He was left to get by completely on his own as best he could minimizing the impact that it had on his life at all times.
Likewise, society has encouraged me throughout my life to suppress or ignore any visual problems I may be having and not to identify with the blind community but to struggle through, passing as sighted. The pitfall of exclusivity that Lewis describes in connection with friendship has plagued me on both sides of the blindness and sighted divide, as one group throws gates in my way for receiving any sort of services or belonging their shared set of experiences, while the other mocks my inefficiencies and ineptitudes arising from lack of seeing, and ignores the intense strain I put myself under to do things their way. Thus am I never seen as free and equal and worthy of friendship but am often relegated to the arena of pity disguised as charity unless I am absolutely silent about my perceptions and experiences.
Other friends who are blind describe the same phenomenon. They will describe instances where people ask them if they are lost or need help in a building where they work for example. A sighted person, when reading such a statement does not understand why this should cause offense. The person will invariably say, “Well, weren’t they just trying to be nice?”
What must be understood in the circumstances, is that the blind person is perceived to be in need of charity, where in reality they are simply in need of friendship. Just like any person walking through their workplace looking to engage casually with a coworker, it’s assumed to be on free and equal terms. They belong there. When this assumption unravels because the sighted person decides that the blind person does not belong there and that the blind person is thought to be in need of pity or charity it creates an imbalance in the equality of the interaction.
This inequality constitutes the real pitfall of charity. Of course altruism, especially Christian love motivated solely by God is a wonderful thing. Through it is much suffering alleviated. The problem arises when like the pitfalls of the other loves sin creeps in–in this case in the form of fear or guilt; a sighted person who fears going blind will approach a blind person with the sort of consolation and help that he (or she) imagines he would need in the instance of himself going blind. This deep-seated fear usually results in pity which results in excessive over-helpfulness.
And this misguided charity also results in confusion when the recipient does not react in gratitude but rather in anger and offense. The reason for this is simple: the blind person was not in need of charity to begin with, but rather friendship. Most disabled people who are going about their daily lives desire love, friendship, and affection in equal measures to the general non-disabled public. What they often receive, is pity disguised as charity which is ultimately not from God but is an attempt to allay the giver’s fears or to make the giver feel better about himself. Like the other loves when they fail, charity taken to extreme and lavished upon misidentified subjects becomes smothering. One easy way to identify whether charity is misplaced or not, is to observe the gratitude level of the recipient.
Historically, people unwilling to receive charity were branded as prideful and reprimanded. What we need to do rather, is to realize that ingratitude may indicate an unwarranted amount of charity and a desire instead for affection, friendship or love. The thing needed to make these happen is both an acknowledgment of equality and an acknowledgment of complementarianism where inequality exists. As many disabled thinkers have pointed out, we are all interdependent. Once we accept interdependence and acknowledge that people with disabilities have value to bring to a relationship; that equality can be established and a friendship or romance can flourish.