When Disability Incites Misplaced Charity

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.

True creation entails preservation

God views his work and is satisfied with it; this means that God loves his work and therefore wills to preserve it. Creation and preservation are two aspects of the one activity of God. It cannot be otherwise than that God’s work is good, that he does not reject or destroy but loves and preserves it. God sees his work; comes to rest; he see that it is good. God’s seeing protects the world from falling back into the void, protects it from total destruction.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, p.22

My children want to save everything they make forever. My youngest son drew at least a hundred pictures of mallard ducks last year with colored markers. He kept them in a stack by his bed. As soon as I clean off the fridge and free all the magnets, it’s covered again with new drawings before I’ve had time to fill it with fresh groceries. Clay and Play-Doh works hide behind the curtains on window sills. An incredible number of Rubbermaid bins hold all piles of afternoon crafts, mixed with last years Sunday school creations and VBS projects. We are like God in that we love to create. This has been pointed out by many before, Dorthy Sayer’s “The Mind of the Maker” being the best treatment of the topic that I know of. But here, Bonhoeffer brings in another key component to the idea, the good, of Creation and that is its sustenance and maintenance. I had never considered this quite so acutely before, and so I’m writing about it.

God doesn’t just create something and then throw it in the trash. He keeps it around, because he loves it. He sustains it. He puts it somewhere safe. If it’s living, he feeds it and clothes it. To love making is to love preserving. They are inseparable. To be a builder is also to be a curator and a keeper.

A few years ago, I heard about a composer who had written a piece of software that composed symphonies in the style of Mozart all on it’s own. Imitating Mozart’s harmonic style and instrumentation, the app would develop a randomly generated melody into a sophisticated piece of high classical music. He was even able to fool several Mozart experts into believing he had found a previously undiscovered work. In the interview, he said that his software could generate a hundred such pieces just over his lunch break – music that a university student might slave over for months to produce. (I know, I used to be that very student.) The interviewer wondered aloud if this made the student’s music worthless, or if the programmer’s random pieces were worthless, or neither, or both. As much as I love software and have been a hobby programmer since I was eight years old, I experienced mostly distaste at the dehumanizing nature of the Mozart symphony generator. Yes, the end result was quantifiably the same on paper and even in the ear, but I had a rather visceral reaction to the thought. Why? I couldn’t answer at the time, but now I think I could say a bit more.

According to Bonhoeffer’s analysis here, true God-like creation doesn’t just create but sustains. Generating a hundred symphonies only to throw them into the virtual garbage can in the sky is not real creation. The pieces are never loved, never heard, never rehearsed, never played. It’s not just that their source was not in some kind of human emotional experience or muse (the first point most commenters made), but that AFTER it is made, it is not sustained.

The university student talks his friends into performing his piece. He arranges rehearsals. He rewrites parts after he discovers some of the passages are too difficult for his hack cellist buddy to pull off. He directs it during the composer’s concert and studies it with his professor for hours to discuss where he succeeded and failed in his compositional techniques. He knows it’s not that great, but it’s a significant stepping stone that he keeps in his memory as he works on future projects. Sometimes he pulls out the old CD recording that was made during his recital. The power of the music fades with memory but it only really dies when he, the composer dies. The hundreds of virtual symphonies die an instant digital death in silence as the volatile memory they are sitting on is reclaimed for the next task of the operating system. Perhaps the generated music could leave the computer and be cherished and nurtured – rehearsed, performed, and contemplated. In doing so, it would be loved and sustained and become much more like the student’s hard-won creation, even though it’s origin was different. But when that doesn’t happen (and for all but a handful of the generated symphonies, it didn’t), then the creation is essentially dead on arrival. It returns to the formless void from which it was conjured.

Our house would quickly be taken over by paintings and sculptures and Lego towers if my wife and I, as parents, didn’t put our foot down and throw things away and ensure they be disassembled. It’s completely necessary. Our kitchen table is for eating meals. It cannot be a permanent Lincoln Log museum. This is a lesson that all the kids have had to learn – not to throw a fit when their creations can no longer be sustained. I remember having to learn the same myself. I think it completely natural that this be a difficult lesson to learn. We want our creations to continue because we love them. To let them go is a mature exercise. Maybe this is what God feels like when he lets us rebel and go our own way. But it doesn’t seem like God would make anything that was destined for the trash can, even as he was building it. He also seems rather keen to often rescue things from the trash can and refashion them into even better creatures than before.

Not being embarrassed of God as “imaginary friend”

Secularists have often ridicule Christians for believing in an “imaginary friend”, conjuring up pictures of a young child playing a bit too seriously with a large teddy bear or having an engaging tea party with empty chair. In response sometimes, not wanting to be associated with what seems to be an embarrassing image, we have resorted to describing our faith more as an abstract set of ideas or of the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force bringing well-being. Since Jesus and his serious work is anchored in the historical past, he naturally doesn’t fit into this embarrassing image from the skeptics and can be safely emphasized instead.

But the Holy Spirit is a person, not force. And his voice sounds with (almost) audible words in our hearts and heads. He is indeed much more like an imaginary friend than any of the less personal things we might substitute in his place to describe him. To be sure, he is augmented by our imagination, sometimes in ways that obscure his face, but that doesn’t mean he is entirely imaginary. He is real a person and here with us right now. Jesus is in heaven and will return, but in his stead, the Spirit (still completely God and completely personal) has joined with us in fellowship. Let’s not be quick to de-personalize him in an attempt to remain respectable to the skeptics. Let us instead pray the Holy Spirit speaks to them too, erroding their unbelief.