This semester I took on a new job, a job I was hesitant to accept - nervous to begin. I agreed to serve as a companion for two young girls with autism. Although the high hourly rate may have been one of the first things to catch my attention, I also knew that this kind of work would teach me much and probably serve as good experience for an aspiring social worker. Beyond that, I wanted to learn, to expand my knowledge of disabilities and how they affect people. I wanted to practice loving people very different from me in some ways. (and in other ways, just the same as me.)
So last Saturday morning I found myself driving to work in the rain. I did not feel like working, it was Saturday after all - normally I spend Saturdays in the library. I did not feel prepared for the mental and emotional toll of working with the girls. As I opened the door I was told that J had gotten sick and only L and I would be spending time together that morning. The three hours ahead of us seemed like an eternity until their mom informed me that she wanted me to take L to the library. With an uneven mix of anxiety and gratitude, I accepted the challenge. Prior to that morning the only time I had gone out with L in "public" was to stroll to the beach and dig in the sand. Thinking of going somewhere like the library with her stressed me out - I worried about how L would act, I worried about being able to make decisions, and shamefully, I worried about how others would react to us. Nonetheless, we drove to the library.
A space opened up directly in front of the library and I was glad that we would not have to walk far at all across one way streets in the rain. As we approached the door to the children's room I quickly noticed signs advertising a special event celebrating Dr. Seuss for that very Saturday. My heart sank, I had no idea how L would respond to a crowd full of people, as loud noises and chaotic spaces can stress her out. Walking into the main section of the library however, it was apparent that for the time being the celebration was taking place in another room. Filled again with gratitude, L and I sat down at a table to color. (one of her favorite activities.)
We colored for a short time and then a little girl and her father wandered over to join us. Again, my heart turned in my chest. My mind anticipated questions that I would not know how to answer. What if she asks why L does not speak? Or what if she asks why she is not coloring inside the lines? Or why her hand occasionally shakes? How do I explain a condition that I really know little about, let alone how to articulate it in language that a child would understand?
Just as quickly, my fears disappeared. "What's your name?" asked the little girl in the blue hello kitty shirt. I told her our names and from there the conversation soared, "What's your favorite color, L? I like purple and white. Do you like blue, L? What about red? My dad likes grey..." On and on she chatted with us and not once did she ask why I responded for L, or why L did not make eye contact or seem engaged. She did not question anything. When L grew tired of coloring we got up to walk around the library and not soon after we left we heard a little voice behind us, "L! You forgot your picture!" The blue-shirted girl held out the picture with great concern, not wanting L to leave without it. Later, she ran around to find us again saying, "WAIT! I have to show L my picture!"
This interaction with the little blue shirted girl fills me with such hope. She did not see L as someone to be treated differently, instead she saw her as someone valuable with thoughts, ideas, and favorites. She did not approach the conversation hesitantly or with uncertainty, she approached L as a human being - as a friend. This whole experience has had my mind reeling - I am thinking about humanity and beauty, value and worth.
It occurred to me that so often we attach value to people based on how well they speak, or what they accomplish... we define ourselves by our actions, or how well we dress, what grades we get, or how many places we have traveled to.
But we are not our actions, our words, or our attitudes. We are not the clothes we wear or the thoughts we think. We are not our to-do lists or our hobbies.
We are not valuable because of the labels people tack onto us.
(and we tack onto ourselves.)
We are valuable because we are made in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully - and the very fact that our heart is still beating, means that God is preserving our bodies another day and that is worth celebrating. Celebrating with gusto. Fully and lavishly. We are valuable because we are alive.
These are words I do not claim to understand completely, but I am trying to let them turn over in my mind until they are engraved upon my soul, written on my hands, seasoned in every conversation. I want to learn to see people, all people, as treasures. I want to enter conversations knowing that people are fragile and delicate and full of beauty untold - that they have favorites, (favorite colors, favorite foods, favorite moments...) they have ideas and thoughts that could change the world if I let them. I want to live a life that welcomes other people to be who they are created to be - and not who I want them to be or think they ought to be.
So little blue shirted girl, thank you. Thank you for re-teaching me a lesson I needed to hear. Thank you for filling me with hope, and for helping in the transformational process of my heart from stone to flesh.