Growing up, there were a number of books that I read numerous times. Among them were Karen and With Love from Karen, both written by Marie Killilea. They tell the story of her family’s life after her daughter was born with cerebral palsy. Ignoring the common advice given in the 1940s to institutionalize their daughter and forget that she had been born, the Killilea’s raised Karen as they raised her siblings, with the goal of maximizing each one’s potential.
While I haven’t read those books recently (though this Musing is going to encourage me to do so) one scene is imprinted on my memory. At the insistence of her parents, Karen’s older sister, Marie, stays put while her sister makes a physically daunting and exhausting journey to the kitchen for a glass of water. Marie is anguished as she recognizes that she could easily and immediately bring the drink to her sister. At her age she doesn’t comprehend her parents’ wisdom in recognizing that Karen’s life will be destroyed if she views herself as a powerless victim of her birth circumstances rather than as a capable human being.
Maturity doesn’t necessarily make it easier for us to ignore the tugs at our heartstrings. That is a blessing. Being able to ignore the suffering of others makes us callous. Yet, maturity demands that feeling the suffering of others doesn’t automatically translate into performing what seems to be the kindest response. Sometimes, what looks like kindness is actually cruelty, just as Marie’s getting her sister a drink would have ended up harming, not helping, Karen.
I regularly read an apolitical blog. Sporadic clues make me think that the writer proudly considers herself liberal, but that is immaterial to her focus. I read it for its honest portrayal of the writer’s family’s life. Her son was born prematurely and, now as a young boy, faces tremendous physical and emotional challenges. The author reveals black days along with bursts of light, the times that frustration and anger overwhelm her, those moments when optimism and joy reign and the constant seesaw of a mother’s heart being broken and mended. Reading her blog and getting a peek at the love she and her husband lavish on both their children makes me a better person.
Recently, she recounted how painful it is for her when other children gawk at her different-looking, son, especially when they mock or laugh at him. When reason dominates her emotions, she recognizes that the ridicule isn’t set in stone. The more time children spend with handicapped children or those who look different from them, the more they focus on the commonalities rather than the differences.
She then extends her views into the political realm. Her conclusion is that those of us who are suspicious of Islam and wary of letting in Moslem Syrian refugees are ignorant of the knowledge that they are just like us. Just as the healthy child’s first instinct is often to distance himself from the visually impaired or wheelchair bound child, if only we could get to know those refugees we want kept at a distance, we would realize that underneath superficial externals we are the same.
If only it was true. Just after I read this blog post, I read a book by a different mother. This book, Beyond the Pale, is the personal recounting of a mother who gives birth to a child with albinism. As part of the author’s exploration of the subject, she goes to Tanzania, appalled to discover that albinos there are often murdered or mutilated so that their limbs can be sold to witch doctors. The examples recounted in the book are horrifying.
I wonder how my blog author would feel about inviting Tanzanians into her community if albinism was her son’s particular challenge. Not every Tanzanian is going to attack a defenseless child. Some will. When we allow an immigrant from a culture where such attacks are acceptable into our country, we need a plan to ensure that the culture won’t accompany the immigrant. Since our country’s immigration policies encourage family reunification, even allowing in a Tanzanian albino fleeing dismemberment could result in opening the door to many more people. Tragically, family members are often complicit in the attacks. In the real world, compassion and good intentions don’t easily turn into policy.
Sadly, the Moslem culture in many countries (not warped individuals, but the educational system, the government’s official message and the religious establishment) teaches that non-Moslems or the ‘wrong type’ of Moslems should not be treated with respect and even encourages murderous attacks on them. America is now home to ‘honor killings’ even if the press chooses not to highlight them. Certainly, immigrants or refugees can be exposed to a new culture and they can change. Certainly, some of those who want to come to America want to do so because they reject their home culture. Yet, there is nothing in place in our policies or educational systems which suggests that such a change will take place or that favors people who find their birth culture’s views abhorrent.
In a fantasy world, all cultures are equally good. In reality, they aren’t. What seems to be the compassionate response to areas of the world that are riven with strife and misery can actually lead to a proliferation of strife and misery in our land as well. A different, truly compassionate answer, is needed.