Saturday 24 August 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'What I got for Father's Day'

Jean Vanier spent his life improving conditions for those who are different
Jean Vanier spent his life improving conditions for those who are different
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

I find myself getting prickly when people give me any variation on the old "Gift from God" line about having a kid who is a bit different. It takes many forms. They will maybe make a big show of talking about how cute the child is, how smart the child is. Isn't she doing great? Oh, and it talks too? Round of applause! They will often just do it by ignoring the sister and being all over the different one. Sometimes they will just go straight for the jugular and talk about the great joy it must bring.

And I know they mean well, but I feel like telling them to f**k off and listing off all the ways it's not a joy and all the ways that it has made our lives more difficult, and all the sacrifices that I and her sister and primarily her mother have made. And all the things we can't do and the things they themselves take for granted that we can't take for granted.

But you know. They don't need to know my problems. And I think families with kids who are different generally like to put the best foot forward. Indeed if people came up to us doing to opposite to the "Gift from God" thing, simpering and sympathising with us instead, we'd get the hump about that too, and tell them we're fine thanks a lot and I don't know if you noticed there buddy but your kids aren't so perfect either.

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Maybe there's no pleasing us. Or maybe we just don't want to be told how we are by other people. Maybe it would be better that if people did want to discuss the situation, they would just ask about it, rather than telling us all about something they know nothing about and we know everything about.

I think my objection to people doing the 'Gift from God'/'Great joy' line is political really. Society nowadays has a tendency to sentimentalise people who are different, to wheel them out in a token manner on TV, to talk about how inspiring they are when they see a video of them online. And again, it's all well meaning, but I don't think it represents those people actually engaging with someone who is different. It's often more about making those people feel better about themselves.

But I've been thinking it's time to get less hard-line about admitting to the joy that someone like my Mary can bring. Sure there are challenges, but they are nowhere near as extreme as the challenges other people face.

And I have to admit that Mary does bring great joy to all of us and I think to lots of the people in her life. And her sister brings just as much joy to me and her mother and other people in her life.

Since his death recently I've been reading a bit about Jean Vanier, the Catholic philosopher and founder of the L'Arche Communities. L'Arche was born when Jean Vanier took two men, who were different, out of an institution and brought them to live with him. It's now a worldwide organisation with a focus not on doing charitable work for people with intellectual disabilities, but more built around the benefits for both parties when typical people live in communities with atypical people. Some of the language and some of the sentiments in the quote, below, from Vanier will jar with you. But let's allow for Vanier being a man of his generation, and I think there is a certain truth in here that is in ways uncomfortable. I struggle with wondering if it's just condescending, but I think there is a truth in here that would be helpful to accept:

"Free from the bonds of conventional society, and of ambition, they are free, not with the ambitious freedom of reason, but with an interior freedom, that of friendship. Who has not been struck by the rightness of their judgments upon the goodness or evil of men, by their profound intuition on certain human truths, by the truth and simplicity of their nature which seeks not so much to appear to be, as to be. Living in a society where simplicity has been submerged by criticism and sometimes by hypocrisy, is it not comforting to find people who can be aware, who can marvel? Their open natures are made for communion and love."

So on Father's Day, I can accept that not only do my two girls both bring me the greatest joy, but one of them has also taught me and her sister and her mother a lot about freedom.

And maybe indeed that is some kind of gift from God or the universe.

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