In 1982, I met Judith Snow. after a close friend of hers, came recruiting people who could work as her Attendants. Judith was brilliant thinker. Physically, she could breathe, chew and digest, and move her right thumb ever so slightly to activate a switch that controlled the movement of her very large wheelchair. For everything else she required someone to act as her arms and legs. That was the job of her attendants. I took on the job, and developed a friendship that lasted more than 30 years, and gave me an understanding of giftedness that I want to explore in this series of blogposts that I am calling “The Courage To Be Gifted”.
Time and space expanded in the rise and fall of one breath. Anger, frustration, confusion, born in near and far experiences, current and long ago, flooded my being on its way to my touch, as I prepared to move her vulnerable still body. Snap! I awake, relieved that awareness has finally arrived.
Stillness was not optional for Judith. Her body simply was not able to move. Every day required that someone would have to enter into the vulnerable space surrounding her body. There was no physical way out of the nature of touch for Judith.
Every day that I worked as her attendant, I moved in and out of that space of vulnerability, as I dressed her, repositioned her, assisted her. It was never my intent to do any harm to Judith, but some days I was more awake and aware than others. I am pretty sure that Judith was sensitively in tune with the moments when I was not aware, when my mind was occupied by some other time, place, and experience.
Judith rarely had a strong reaction to my moments of unconscious effort to move and manipulate her body. Instead, most often there was a silence, or a quiet suggestion guiding me to adjust her position. Judith and I never spoke about her conscious strategy that defined her approach. I am sure that some of it was simply shaped by her desire to limit the need for words to get through the routine daily functions required to live.
But I also believe that her reality moved her to develop a practice of spiritual centering, that would prepare her for what she must do to survive. Her centeredness in her reality, combined with her plan to shape her environment, and control what she could control, made it possible for me to “wake up”, and be where I was, doing the task that was set before me, to serve as Judith’s arms’s and legs.
I learned about the nature of violence and non-violent resistance when I worked as Judith’s attendant. I had already been studying and paying attention to movements of non-violent change. I had read about Gandhi and the liberation of India from British rule, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, Thich Nhat Hahn and the Buddhist monks in Viet Nam. I had been a part of non-violent demonstrations for peace and nuclear disarmament. I was strongly considering joining a “witness” program that had North Americans traveling into the violence that was so prevalent in the Central American countries of Guatemala and El Salvador.
But in these daily intimate interactions with Judith’s vulnerability I could see how violence was born in experiences that were not here and now. I could see how my attachment to frustration and anger would flow through my actions. If Judith had raised her voice in anger or frustration to my unconscious attempts, it would have given legitimacy to the violent energy already present, and we would have been engaged in some kind of battle for control. But Judith’s spiritually centered approach in these moments, her acceptance of her vulnerability, created space for me to awaken to the energy that can fuel violence, and I could pause, relax, and slide into a moment of presence to the task at hand.
Vulnerability offers a softness that can serve as a soothing balm in a violent world. There is a potential for awakening that comes through relating to this vulnerability. Many of us spend our lives cloaking our vulnerability, shrouding it with impenetrable force, wrapping it up with our intellect, spewing words that create distance. But there are those among us for whom armoring vulnerability is not a viable option. These people, and the vulnerability they bring, offer a gift to those of who come in contact with them. A softness that drops the barriers between us, that opens a tenderness in our own hearts, that we can feel as our protective armor slips away, and we can feel the “just”ness of relating as we are meant to relate.
In the 1980’s I worked with teachers, principals, administrators, families, and children on making it possible for children with disabilities to be included in typical neighborhood schools. John David was the first student with a disability to be included in this one grade 8 class. He was a 13 year old boy who had cerebral palsy. He walked with a stumbling gait. He would experience seizures that could cause him to fall, and so he wore a helmet, a truly undesirable fashion statement for middle school students. But John David had a huge welcoming smile, and he made no effort to hide his vulnerable self. There was another young boy, Mike, who had a reputation for angry trouble. The teacher noted that every week following this young boy’s visit with his father (his parents were divorced), he came to school with a brooding cloud that would lead to disruption in the class. After John David became a member of the class, the teacher observed that on Mondays following Mike’s weekends with his father, Mike would instinctually gravitate to spend time with John David, his angry cloud would evaporate, and Mike would soften, caught by the vulnerable joy that emanated from John David.
Those who bring naked vulnerability, offer a gift that can soothe a violent world. There is no guarantee that we will awaken, but the peaceful and just possibility awaits us.