There is much in our daily lives that points to confusion about what is means to be human. Debates concerning the beginning and end of life obviously fit in this category, but I’m increasingly convinced that these are merely symptomatic of a much greater phenomenon. Since we are, for the most part, no longer born to our place in life, we have begun to determine our worth—our humanity—in terms of what we do rather than who we are. Even those who do not have the social or economic means to “reinvent” themselves live by the social norm that says that what they do is who they are. One of my professors explained it well: “We like to be busy. It makes us feel important.”
This summer, however, several things happened which made me reconsider this assumption. I was in a book club reading Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human and about the same time I was getting to know a young woman with intellectual disabilities, whom I will call Sarah. Vanier challenged us to consider what we think of as worth-determining and the more time I spent with Sarah the more I began to acknowledge that I see a person’s worth in what they do rather than who they are.
Sarah told me she didn’t have any friends and I knew this was because she didn’t have anything tangible to offer a potential friend: no great humour, no birthday outings, no thoughtful feedback. Only herself. And in our culture, “herself” is not enough. Sarah and I went to Ballet in the Park one evening and I was surprised when the woman with the programs handed one to me and not to Sarah. In fact, she didn’t even look at Sarah. I wondered if this was because she wasn’t sure if Sarah could read. But that wasn’t the point; being part of this community meant having a program. Not having a program meant being on the outside, “other,” with nothing to offer.
But Sarah offered me much that evening. I kept worrying about keeping her out too long, as I would with any other friend, concerned that she would tire of what we were doing and would want to get on with her day. But she wasn’t worried in the least. For Sarah, now was all that mattered. Our worth, our humanity, was found in our togetherness.
It occurs to me that our discomfort with people who have physical or intellectual disabilities has the same root as our discomfort with the elderly, who once held a prominent and respected position in our culture. When we can no longer do, there is a sense in which we no longer are. For Christians, this is deeply problematic because we proclaim the Imago Dei, that ancient doctrine which says our worth comes only from the imprint of God.
My perpetual busyness, then, only has worth as something that flows forth from God’s image. In and of itself, it makes me no more and no less human. The ancient practices of the Church—things like centring prayer, labyrinths, and lectio divina—teach us to simply be in God. It is from these places of stillness (uselessness?) that I learn my true worth and am able to let go of the drive to perform and please. When I realize that being in God and having God in me (Diana Butler Bass) is enough, I am free to offer the world what comes naturally for Sarah: myself.