Mentally Challenged or Wonderfully Extraordinary?

M.J. Johnston submitted this beautiful piece for your thoughtful consideration.  Enjoy!

Is your light shining? @Glowimages

Is your light shining?
@Glowimages

Several times each year, I drive a few hours to pick up my nephew to enjoy a weekend together.  Andrew is a high school graduate, an honorary fireman, and a recipient of a mayoral citation for having saved a little girl’s life a few years ago.  While these are significant accomplishments for anyone, these are amazing achievements for Andrew.  Since birth, Andrew has been labeled mentally and physically challenged, but I’ve learned that these labels are not true for Andrew–he’s truly wonderful and extraordinary!

Many of us have experienced being tagged with labels which may be unwanted descriptors or negative categorizations. There is an entire field of study called ‘labeling theory’ which explores how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined by the terms used to describe them.  Louis Rowitz’s paper, ‘A Sociological Perspective on Labeling in Mental Retardation’, notes the concern and harmful effects of labeling individuals: “If the label deviant is successfully applied, these individuals become deviant because of the attachment of the label,” says Rowitz.  Surely, none of us wishes to create a deviant, a crook, or anything else by labeling someone as such!

It is just as important to remember that we don’t have to accept the labels which others attempt to place on us.  Andrew doesn’t accept any ‘challenging’ labels for himself.  He only sees his life as wonderfully extraordinary, and lives each day with this in mind. When I watch Andrew, I am reminded of Jesus admonition from the Sermon on the Mount, where he tells us, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 16). I think of that light as the brightness of God’s glory in each of us. And thus, Jesus words say to me, don’t accept any label of being mentally or physically challenged, or anything which takes away from your real self.

Andrew certainly does not. For instance, each morning, he begins his day with a big smile and a firm hug while exclaiming “Good morning!” with utter delight.  He always expects a fabulous day and expresses genuine excitement in daily chores.

His mission throughout the day is to serve.  If the garbage bag is full, it’s replaced.  If the bird feeder is emptied, it gets filled.  As soon as the mail truck goes by, the mail is quickly retrieved.  None of these require any direction, he just sees the need and handles it.  He also anticipates needs.  He often walks a few steps ahead of me to ensure he gets to the door prior to open it and then waits – and hopes – there are others nearby that he can help.  There’s no seeking out credit for having done these tasks either.  It’s enough for him to just enjoy serving.

He also expresses complete self-assurance.  When I tell him how happy everyone is to see him, he replies, “Yes, they are!”  After noting what a great job he does with chores, he answers, “Yes, I do!”  If a stranger is expecting a cool handshake, forget it, they’re going to get a big ‘how-do-you-do’ bear hug because he knows everyone needs a hug.  There is not a hint of arrogance in his responses–just complete honesty in knowing he’s doing the right thing to the best of his ability. Really, he can’t help it because his light shines so bright.

His daily actions cannot help but prompt self-examination from those who know him or come into contact with him.  “What labels am I applying to myself each day?  Am I removing mental challenges that would prevent me from greeting friends and family each day with utter joy? Am I letting my light shine? Can I enrich each day by finding ways to serve my fellow man?”

I suspect Andrew would say “Yes”; then, he’d remind you that, “You, too, are wonderfully extraordinary!”

Mary Jane (M.J.) likes to blog about health, spirituality, science and religion and the impact prayer and spiritual care have on the mind-body-spirit connection.  M.J. is a former executive with a Fortune 10 company and is a Christian Science practitioner and a member of the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Maryland blog team.