We need to be reminded that we are loved simply for who we are, and not what we do.
White Picket Fences
By Amy Julia Becker
I am working on a series of reflections for a school up in New Hampshire. The chaplain has invited me to talk with 600 high school students about what I’ve learned during more than a decade as Penny’s mom. One morning, after I drop the kids off at school, I turn on a podcast and NPR host Krista Tippett is interviewing poet Michael Longley. He gets my attention immediately when he says, “One of the marvelous things about poetry is that it’s useless. It’s useless.” He pauses for effect. “‘What use is poetry?’ people occasionally ask in the butcher shop, say … And the answer is no use, but it doesn’t mean to say that it’s without value. It’s without use, but it is valuable.”
His words lead me to think about what poetry has to offer—beauty, peace, insight into the human condition, questions about meaning and purpose, a connection to something transcendent and bigger than ourselves. And then my mind moves from poetry to people. I think of Penny first—many individuals with disabilities, many elderly people, many people living in poverty, do not contribute in any measurable economic way to our society. Useless, some might say. A burden. A drain. And from a purely material, utilitarian way of thinking, they might be right. But Longley’s words make me think about myself, about Marilee and William, and about the students I will speak to next week. Understanding love as the basis of human identity, understanding the value of every human being, independent of work or achievement, is a truth we all need to hear.
When I arrive at the chapel, I walk into a soaring space with wooden pews and Gothic arches. The students in the choir scurry around in long black and white robes as the notes from a complicated organ fugue surround us. Thirty minutes later, the rest of the students and faculty file in—many with their hair still wet, coming straight to this service after athletic practices and a quick shower. They giggle and chatter and nudge each other as they settle into their seats. I can only assume that most of them are not eagerly anticipating this required religious service wedged between a long day of work and the dinner and free time that awaits.
I take my place at the high wooden lectern and look out at row after row of pristine faces. The boys wear ties and blue blazers, the girls skirts or dresses. I share with them the Michael Longley quotation about value and usefulness, and I admit that I often conflate the two. I thoughtlessly assume that without usefulness—without demonstrable physical and intellectual abilities that could lead to financial productivity in the future—our lives hold no value. And then I tell them about Penny, about how my love for her helped me to understand her value.
I say,“Imagine meeting someone who doesn’t care about your grades or what college you’re going to or what exclusive internship you got for the summer. Imagine that person seeing beneath all the layers of achievement and loving you.”
I look out at a sea of teenagers with “potential,” with impressive college prospects and hours of community service and grand ambitions that they may well realize. I know that many of them walk around, like I did when I was in their shoes, with a deep longing to know that it is not their performance that brings them worth. It is not their achievement that makes them lovable. I want these kids to be free from the relentless need to prove themselves. I want them to be able to explore what they love and not simply achieve what they are good at. I want them to be able to rest.
“Having a child with disabilities has expanded my capacity to love and value others, but it has also expanded my ability to believe that I am loved not because of my achievements but because of my humanity, in all my vulnerabilities and weaknesses and beauty and gifts. You, too, are limited and needy, gifted and glorious. And your value comes not because of your SAT scores or your likelihood of becoming an investment banker someday. Your value—like Penny’s, like mine—comes because you are known and you are loved, with a love that is patient and kind, a love that always hopes, always protects, always trusts, always perseveres. Our value comes because we are loved by a love that never fails.”
I scan their faces one more time, and I am surprised to see the tears trickling down some of their cheeks. I am surprised by their rapt attention. I am surprised by how much we all need to know that we are valuable not because of our usefulness but because we are loved.
I see Penny’s life as a signpost. Penny’s abilities have emerged out of the supports she has received, but those abilities have also emerged out of love. She makes me believe that kids who are growing up in poverty, or who have learning disabilities, or intellectual disabilities, or genetic conditions that make them more vulnerable, or kids who carry the undeserved weight of prejudice because of their ethnicity or gender or religion—that possibilities for joy and connection and love and purpose exist for all. Penny also makes me believe that the kids who are suffocating from the pressure cooker of achievement can find rest and peace and purpose. If we believed that all children are beloved human beings, maybe we would be more inclined as a society to give them the opportunities to discover their abilities, their gifts. Maybe we would invest not only financial resources but also time and prayer and hope for their futures. Maybe we wouldn’t need them to prove their usefulness if we believed in their value.
When I was a student myself, I learned that the best way to argue a point was from an objective perspective. The knowledge that mattered was rational knowledge. Prioritizing rational knowledge has led to scientific advances and great insights and learning. It has also led to movements like eugenics in the early twentieth century, when scientific “proof” buttressed anti-Semitism and racism and sexism and the forced sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities. This strain of thinking continues even now with the assumption that people with low IQs suffer implicitly, presumably by virtue of their inability to gain the same knowledge as their peers from a typical classroom education. But Eastern spiritual traditions as well as the Judeo-Christian Scriptures see knowledge differently. For the apostle Paul, rational knowledge is subservient to love. Paul writes to the Philippians, “This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,” and to the Galatians, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” and to the Ephesians, Paul prays that they would be able to grasp the “love that surpasses knowledge.” He writes to the Corinthians, “If I have … all knowledge … but do not have love, I am nothing.”
The intellect counts for nothing unless it is informed by love.
I used to wonder if my love for Penny clouded my judgment of ethical issues related to Down syndrome. But Paul’s words convince me that I can see Penny clearly only because I love her, that I can see myself clearly only when I believe that I am loved.