Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Burden to Society? (On Friendship and Love)

Ellen at Love That Max recently wrote a post called My child with special needs is not a burden to society. In this post she (very rightly) combats the idea that only people who are "productive" members of society are valuable to it.
Should you argue that these [famous people] are men who contribute more to the world than my son ever will, well then I say that's an incredibly narrow-minded way of looking at life.
(I encourage you to go read the whole post. It's very good, as is the blog as a whole.)

I am now playing the what-if-I-had-written-this-post game, and I must say that I think I would have written a very different post than Ellen did. Before I continue, I want to add a few disclaimers. Firstly, I am not a parent of children with special needs, or even a parent at all. So, although I don't intend to speak about parenting per se, or to say anything that's super controversial, I will, just in case, quote Clare Coffey on another subject and say "if anything I say seems presumptuous, unrealistic, or stupid, just chuckle." Disclaimer number two is that while it's going to look like I disagree with Ellen, I actually don't think I do. I think what looks like a disagreement is a semantic question, in that she and I mean different things when we say "burden". Ellen says:
Burden? My child? Expensive, yes. Demanding, yes. Emotionally draining at times, yes. "Deadweight/encumbrance/misfortune" (all synonyms for "burden"): NO.
In this sense, I 100% agree, children with special needs are not burdens. But here's why I would have written a different post: when I hear someone say, "So-and-so is a burden," my gut response is not "No, he's not," but "Yeah, so what? So are you."

When I say that something is a burden, I don't mean that the trouble it causes outweighs its benefits (I think this is Ellen's idea of what it means to be a burden). I mean simply that the thing in question causes a lot of trouble. This is roughly the sense that Merriam-Webster online gives. And in this sense, yes, beautiful, amazing Max is a burden. Every child with special needs is a burden. Every child on Reece's Rainbow is a burden. But so is every typical child. So are you. And so am I.

No one is perfect. Even those of us who are physically and cognitively "perfect" (I put the term in scare quotes because I know there's a lot of controversy surrounding the use of terms like perfect or normal and I do not intend offense; I use the word because it conveys my point) are not morally perfect. And our moral imperfections are burdens to others.

When I lose my temper and yell at my friends, it's burdensome. When I forgot my driver's license and couldn't help drive on our road trip, it was burdensome. When I have a day bad enough that my friend cancels his plans because he doesn't think leaving me alone is a good idea (yes, I know that the rain wasn't the real reason you spent the evening with me), it's burdensome.

Of course not everything I do is burdensome. I have also cancelled plans to help friends. I make pretty things. I write papers that make my professors happy. I am not a 100% burden, but a mixed bag of burdens and joys. Sometimes the balance tips one way, and sometimes the other. This is true of everyone, including children with special needs, who bring more challenges than typical children, but most of the same joys, as well as joys unique to them.

But my friends have not run an analysis and decided that, on balance, the joy I cause outweighs the burdens I cause. They are not my friends halfheartedly, putting up with the bad for the sake of the good. My friends know that I am a burden, and they accept that burden itself; gladly, even joyfully, accept it. "I love talking to you," A once said, right after he had spent about half an hour chiseling away at a black pit of my despair while I sat on his futon and cried. "Even if what you have to say might hurt me, tell me anyway because I need to know in order to love you more," K said to me early in our relationship. My friends, in short, know that I can be a burden to them, and choose to make me their burden.

Isn't that love? When you take someone who is a burden to you and choose to make him your burden? If I am a burden to you, you try to get rid of me, try to minimize the damage that I cause to you. Sure, you might be okay with having me around later, when I'm not being such a pain in the neck, but right now, I'm an obstacle to your happiness. If I am your burden, you accept me and care for me, and thereby truly love me (in the Thomistic "willing the good of another" sense of the word). (Conversely, allowing yourself to be loved means allowing yourself to become someone else's burden--admitting that you impose on others, and you need them to let you do so.)

So are children with special needs burdens to society? In the sense in which I've been using the word, sure. They make noise in places where it would be better if they were quiet. They have tantrums in stores. They are unable to do things their parents wish they could do. Typical children do these things too, and adults, while most of us outgrow throwing tantrums in stores, have their own problematic behaviors: We talk when it would be better to listen, we are short with cashiers, and now we fail to live up to our own expectations as well as our parents'. Yes, they are burdens to society, but not worse burdens than we are. And maybe we'd all be better off if we were willing to let them, and us, become society's burdens instead.

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