“Master,” they asked Jesus, ” who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” The logic behind the question was simple. God’s creation was perfect; so for a man to be born handicapped, something must have gone wrong. Jesus’ disciples simply wanted to know what had gone wrong. It is an agonizing question–one faced by the parents of every child born handicapped. Yet most of these parents handle the question better than I would have thought.
George Will, in an editorial (Newsweek, May 3, 1993), made me reconsider the question. It was a piece written on the occasion of his son Jon’s twenty-first birthday. Jon Will was born with Down syndrome–a disorder caused by genetic abnormalities that develop before conception. The first complete medical description of the disorder came from Dr. Landon Down in 1866. He called it mongolism, but it later came to be known as Down syndrome.
A mere twenty-one years ago, a doctor told the Wills that their first decision must be whether or not to take Jon home. There was a time, you see, when children with Down syndrome were usually kept in an institution. Because of predictable health problems, very few of them grew to be adults, dying of congenital heart defects and failures of digestive tracts and immune systems.
But since the 1940s, more and more parents have decided to take their children home and work with them. The result is that the life expectancy of Down syndrome children is now about fifty years. The last few years of their life are often plagued with difficulties, but they often have good lives past age thirty-five. It’s an astonishing difference, and it comes from little more than good medical care, attention, and stimulation when they are children.
George Will said of his son, “Jon lost, at the instant he was conceived, one of life’s lotteries, but he also was lucky: his physical abnormalities do not impede his vitality, and his retardation is not so severe that it interferes with life’s essential joys–receiving love, returning it, and reading baseball box scores.”
George Will is not the first parent I’ve heard say this. Down syndrome children–and adults–are among the most affectionate and loving of people. Jon Will’s father describes him as a happy person noting that “happiness is a species of talent, for which some people have superior aptitudes.”
True, but what surprises us is that so many handicapped people are so happy. George Will continued:
“When a child suffers a mentally limiting injury after birth we wonder sadly about what might have been. But a Down person’s life never had any other trajectory. Jon was Jon from conception on. He has seen a brother two years younger surpass him in size, get a driver’s license, and leave for college, and although Jon would be forgiven for shaking his fist at the universe, he has been equable. I believe his serenity is grounded in his sense that he is a complete Jon and that is that.”
Yes, and when I read that I began to understand why so many of us pursue happiness and never find it. We simply are not content to be who we are.
Jon Will is a baseball fan: “From his season ticket seated behind the Orioles dugout, Jon relishes rhubarbs, but I have never seen him really angry. The closest he comes is exasperation leavened by resignation. It is an interesting commentary on the human condition that one aspect of Jon’s abnormality–a facet of his disability–is the fact that he is gentleness straight through. But must we ascribe a sweet soul to a defective chromosome? Let us just say that Jon is a adornment to a world increasingly stained by anger acted out.”
One in every eight hundred children born in this country is a result of this “defective” chromosome. It is, in a sense like the story in John’s Gospel of the moving of the waters. There was a kind of lottery in which the first person into the water was healed–the second man in was not. God sometimes does strange things, but never without a reason. If we don’t understand, the deficiency is with us.
Jon Will has given me a new look at the question Jesus’ disciples asked Him about why people were born handicapped. Jesus answered, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:3). Jesus then proceeded to spit on the ground, make clay and to anoint the eyes of the blind man with the clay. He then told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. He went, washed, and came seeing.
There is a philosophical problem with the suggestion that God would cause a man to be born blind merely so that He could heal him of it. It seems to make the man’s blindness a kind of divine advertising scheme. But when I consider a Down syndrome child and realize that he is the way he is because of an accident of birth, I think something else may be going on. I would never suggest that God causes Down syndrome, but it’s hard to argue that He doesn’t allow it. And if He allows it, He allows it for a reason. Perhaps it is that the works of God might be manifested in them. Jesus had the power to heal the blind man and did so. We have the power to love, care for, encourage, and otherwise help people who are handicapped from birth. From this comes a great deal of love, joy, and growth. People who have experience with Down syndrome children say that they are among the most loving of children and that the experience of bringing them into the world, raising them to adulthood, and sharing love with them makes it worth the pain of eventually losing them.
The works of God take many forms. Not the least of them is the greatness that is achieved in overcoming adversity. People are constantly asking the question: “What must we do that we might work the works of God?” It seems that God has placed in the world more ways to do His work than we might have thought.
Adversity is in the world to be overcome. It is one of the works of God. Down syndrome children are in the world to love and be loved. It is one of the works of God. The man born blind was not blind from sin. He was blind so that God could work. Perhaps we should spend less time worrying about causes and effects, sinners and victims, and more time working the works of God.