The challenge of parenting a child with special needs often leaves me wondering who is teaching whom. And who has more to learn–me or her?
On weekday mornings, after the snail’s-pace race to get dressed and brushed and outfitted with glasses, backpack and lunch, my daughter waits for the bus to arrive that will deliver her to her special education program. Waiting for that bus with her is often one of those introspective moments where I wonder whether I should be taking lessons from her rather than assuming I have all the wisdom to dispense.
To me it’s a simple concept: We are waiting for the yellow bus. It’s the same yellow bus that comes every morning. It stops at the same place by our driveway. So we look out the dining room window and watch for the yellow bus to arrive. Not very complicated, right?
Wrong. To the simple mind of my special daughter, looking out the window to see a yellow bus that isn’t there is the epitome of stupidity. The look on her face seems to say, “Isn’t it obvious that there is no yellow bus there? How can I look at something that isn’t even there?”
We who are highly educated and supremely intelligent (note the sarcasm) sigh with impatience at this developmental disability that prevents her from grasping such a simple concept of watching for the bus to come. But in God’s delightful sense of humor, she sometimes mimics our sighs and rolls her eyes, as if she also is wondering when these silly parents of hers will finally understand such a simple concept–when the bus is not there, you cannot see it.
So what is she watching when she’s not looking out the window at the bus that’s not there? She’s watching me stuff food down my throat so I can hurry up and get to work. She’s watching her mom hurriedly putting meals together for the rest of the day. She’s watching her big brother do his devotions at the kitchen table. In short, she’s paying attention to what’s right in front of her in that moment.
The bus may only be 3 minutes away, but that’s not now. And if it’s 3 minutes away, it’s certainly not right in front of her. What matters to her is what’s happening right now and right here.
Are we, whose minds are unhindered by disability, really any better off? Or is she the unhindered one, and our minds are the ones truly disabled by all our preoccupation with things that are not right here and right now?
It seems more than a bit ironic that in our zeal to equip her for independent living, we are telling her to stop looking at us and instead look out the window at the bus that isn’t there. Yet perhaps God is also zealous to equip us, and perhaps He is telling us to stop looking at all the tasks that aren’t here yet, and instead notice the person who is right in front of us.
Brennan Manning writes that it is an act of radical trust in God to be fully present to whoever or whatever is immediately before us: “Being fully present in the now is perhaps the premier skill of the spiritual life.”
It is through immersion in the ordinary—the apparently empty, trivial, and meaningless experiences of a routine day—that life/Life is encountered and lived. Real living is not about words, concepts, and abstractions but about experience of who or what is immediately before us. The self-forgetfulness that such experience requires is the essence of contemplative simplicity.
The most fascinating and delectable fruit of attention to the here and now is compassion. Looking unhurriedly at a flower, staring at a small child asleep, offering a non-judgmental presence to a hurting loved one—these acts mysteriously stir gentle feelings toward ourselves and others. Through a long, loving look at the real/Real, we are, without any deliberate effort on our part, in the presence of the Compassionate One.Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust, (c) 2000 HarperCollins, pp. 150, 156, 158-159.
Compassionate Father, help me to be fully present to the person in front of me right now. Help me to pay attention to the ways You are teaching me through my special daughter, even in these places where I am seeking to teach her.