Do we really see people when we look at them? What do we see, for example, when we look at the face of a child – say, the face of a child with Down syndrome?
If we are all made “in the image and likeness of God” (and no one to whom God has given life is not), then when we look into the face of any of God’s children, we should see there the face of God, just as when we read the Scriptures, we are supposed to be listening for the voice of God. The problem is that, just as our ears can be closed to God’s voice in Mass, so too we can glance at the faces of dozens of such children and never see them – never see reflected there the image and likeness of God.
I was thinking of this the other day when I saw my friend’s son, who has Down syndrome, playing with his adoring older sister. It’s not merely that I don’t see Tommy the way his sister does. I have always found this young man profoundly beautiful in his own way, but my admiration-from-a-distance is nothing compared to the love and daily care that attaches Tommy’s sister to him.
She sees him, strokes his hair, and blows him kisses with a love that leaves me in awe. It is a reality far beyond all my categories and understanding. It is, I suspect, the reality towards which all my theological categories, classes, and lectures point, but never quite capture.
It is one thing to say that “God is love,” but it is another thing altogether to see it and to experience it so palpably that you can feel it’s life-giving energy.
And yet, the experience I’m talking about wasn’t an experience of my own love for someone, but of love being shown for someone else. You may have had this experience, too, at an airport or bus station: seeing the love and joy on the faces of family members greeting one another after a long journey. It’s like heaven – and I don’t mean that just metaphorically.
If what we call “heaven” is another way of describing our ultimate home, which involves seeing and loving God face-to-face, and if, as the Church teaches, God is triune – three Persons in one Being – then we “see God” most truly not in a mystical, Platonic ascent to “the One,” but when we see love shared between persons.
What families with children who have disabilities can teach us is how much we so often miss when we look at such children and how reductive our approach to humanity can be – as though humans were to be measured by our test scores, the work we produce, or how capable of “great things” people think we are.
“I often tell the story of my son,” writes Tommy’s mother:
If we had known the extent of his problems before birth, we would have heard something like “your son will have Down syndrome with cognitive delays, a heart defect, be born blind in one eye, have severe obstructive sleep apnea, and develop eating problems necessitating a feeding tube.”
Even if we had known some positive things people with Down syndrome are capable of, this wouldn’t have come close to describing the unique individual my son is. No one could have told me prenatally that his smile lights up a room, that his favorite color is red, that he loves foreign languages and his ABC’s and getting the dog in trouble, that he loves to wrestle with his brother, is crazy about his sisters, tells them he loves them to the moon and back, has a keen sense of humor. No prenatal test could ever convey the amazingly complex individual that any child is.
We do a disservice to parents when we ask them to decide about ending their child’s life when they cannot possibly know who that child is. And it is a grave injustice to individuals with disabilities to reduce their personhood to their disability, as though nothing else about them matters.
It is not enough to present to parents a table of pros and cons, with positive features on one side and negative features on the other, hoping that the positive features will outweigh the negative; there are always those for whom the positives will never be enough – who will always set the bar higher.
Consider Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, who believes that parents are morally justified in aborting a child with a disability, and speaking specifically of Down syndrome, says, “We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player.”
Penn State professor Michael Berube, who has a son with Down syndrome, captures the absurdity of this statement nicely in his response to Singer: “I note that in the 1920s we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning to speak; in the 1970s, we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning how to read. OK, so now the rationale for seeing these people as somewhat less than human is their likely comprehension of Woody Allen films. Twenty years from now we’ll be hearing ‘sure, they get Woody Allen, but only his early comedies – they completely fail to appreciate the breakthrough of Interiors.’ Surely you understand my sense that the goal posts are being moved around here in a rather arbitrary fashion.”
I fear it’s not arbitrary at all. The movement is precisely in the opposite direction from our ordering “to the image of God” (the phrase in the Latin Vulgate), a tragedy that results from the blindness that refuses to see the face of the Triune God even when He’s smiling right at us.