A friend loaned me Christopher De Vinck’s book The Power of the Powerless before we brought the boys home last month. I have read it through multiple times and the story continues to speak deeply to my heart. The author’s brother Oliver was severely handicapped from birth and remained bed-ridden for the entire 33 years of his life. The author poignantly recounts all the ways that his family was blessed by Oliver, who could “do absolutely nothing except breathe, sleep, eat, and yet he was responsible for action, love, courage, insight.”
When Oliver’s disabilities became apparent early in life, the doctor advised his parents to put him in an institution. Instead they replied, “But he is our son. We will take Oliver home, of course.”
So the doctor said, “Then take him home and love him.”
The doctor’s response makes me think of my mother-in-law, who encouraged us several times through skype around the time of our boys’ homecoming that love is the best medicine there is. She is so right.
We have seen both boys blossoming these four weeks in our home, and Daniel has made huge progress, especially this past week. He is waking independently all over our apartment now, holding things in his hands, and starting to feed himself finger foods!
So now, when I read back through The Power of the Powerless, I can only imagine what life might have been like if Daniel had remained bed-ridden and unresponsive. And I have such deep respect for Oliver’s mother Catherine, who wrote the following of her experience with Oliver, before his death in 1980:
“It’s hard to express what such a verdict means to a mother. It pierced me to my depth, ripped apart at the very fabric of life when we discovered how severely different Oliver was going to be all his life. It was not something one could put aside or escape. The world appeared darkened: It was as if the whole of reality had been covered with a gray film. I didn’t understand yet
By the grace of God (and I don’t use this as a figure of speech), I could accept it, in darkness and ignorance—yes, even manage a simple, immediate consent. I remember holding Oliver and saying the Lord’s Prayer, over and over: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I could not see the purpose of this trial, but I could say yes to God. I could begin to realize that God’s ways are not our ways.
For many, many years, I was confined to the house, alone and without the support of relatives or friends. Jose was at work all day and I was with Oliver and the other five children. This enforced seclusion was difficult for me; I had a restless, seeking spirit. Through Oliver, I was held still. I was forced to embrace a silence and a solitude where I could “prepare the way of the Lord.” Sorrow opened my heart, and I “died.” I underwent this “death” unaware that it was a trial by fire from which I would rise renewed—more powerfully, more consciously alive.
I looked into the abyss of human sorrow and saw how dangerous and how easy it is to slide into self-pity—to weep over one’s fate. I was given the grace to understand that one has to be on guard against such grieving, for it falsifies one’s grasp on life and erodes one’s inner strength. Sorrow can be worn as a badge of honor (“See how I suffer!”). It can also be a searing experience. It is not exalting to be alone all day in a house full of small children, to be faced with the same daily chores, with a routine of physical work which appears to narrow one’s life to trivial concerns. Many women who are “just housewives” experience this sense of futility, this feeling of being cut off from the mainstream of life.
But if there is a silence that is opaque and a solitude that is a prison, there is also a silence that is luminous and a solitude that is blessed terrain where the seeds of prayer can grow…
Oliver was always a “hopeless” case, yet he was such a precious gift for our whole family. “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” (1 Corinthians 1:27) This child had no apparent usefulness or meaning, and the “world” would reject him as an unproductive burden. But he was a holy innocent, a child of light.
Looking at him, I saw the power of the powerlessness. His total helplessness speaks to our deepest hearts, calls us not merely to pious emotions but to service. Through this child, I felt bound to Christ crucified—yes, and also to all those who suffer in the world. While caring for Oliver, I also felt that I ministered, in some mysterious way, to all my unknown brothers and sisters who were, and are, grieving and in pain throughout the world. So, through Oliver, I learned the deepest meaning of compassion.
I have made my peace with the coming of Oliver’s death. I cannot see it as a tragedy. I know that the child who lived in apparent void and darkness sees God, lives forever in health, beauty and light. Here on earth, he was loved. His presence among us was a mysterious sign of that peace the world cannot give.”
Because of our situation with Daniel, I know what she means about a sense of solidarity with hurting brothers and sisters around the world. I also completely understand what she wrote about how easy it is to slide into self-pity. I know how she can say that she learned the deepest meaning of compassion through her care of Oliver for more than 30 years. As I have battled with my own selfishness this past month with the two new additions in our home, I know that I am just scratching the surface of compassion.
Henri Nouwen wrote in the Intro:
“When I finished reading The Power of the Powerless I had a strange vision. I saw our crazy world, full of wars and conflicts, full of competition and ambition, full of heroes and stars, full of success stories, horror stories, love stories and death stories, full of newspapers, television, radios and computer screens, and millions of people believing that something was happening that they couldn’t miss without losing out on life. And then I saw a hand moving this heavy curtain of spectacles away and pointing to a handicapped child, a poor beggar, a chronically ill woman, an illiterate monk, a dying old man, a hungry child. I had not noticed them before. They seemed hidden so far away from where ‘it’ seemed to be happening. But the hand pointed gently to these poor, humble, weak people and a voice said, ‘Because of them I won’t let the world be destroyed. They are my favored ones and with them I made my covenant and I will be faithful to it.’”
How true it is that “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” (1 Corinthians 1:27)
I am thankful for the ways that God has been enabling our family to see, through our adoption, the value He places on life and the power He gives to the powerless.