Sometimes the greatest lessons in life come from the unlikeliest sources. This is a lesson I learned first-hand from a very special child.
Many years ago, I went through some rough times and was feeling sorry for myself. I’d heard that one could get over depression by helping other people. One of my friends was doing volunteer work helping a severely disabled child and I thought it might lift me out of my funk.
He was a 6-year-old boy named Matthew, who was born with severe brain damage. Matthew could not speak one word, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t feed or clothe himself, he had trouble crawling because his legs twisted and cramped all the time, and he had the cognitive abilities of at best a 6-month-old infant. I was one of approximately 80 volunteers who gave up one hour per week to spend with Matthew. We’d feed him, help him crawl and climb, give him toys of different sizes, shapes and textures to touch and manipulate, and talk to him constantly. The idea was to bombard his brain with different stimuli and hopefully coax it to find new pathways to learn the simple skills we take for granted.
What I remember most about Matthew was that he was always smiling. He had a radiant smile and the sweetest disposition I’ve ever seen in a child. He was a real trooper when we made him do exercises that were physically demanding and sometimes painful. I don’t know if Matthew recognized me, but he’d react to the sound of my voice and the touch of my hand, and he’d giggle when I made silly faces or sang nursery rhymes to him as we went through the exercises or called him by name in a funny voice.
After a few weeks, the dark clouds went away, and did not return. In fact, I was embarrassed that I felt sorry for myself when I had been blessed with so much that Matthew did not have. He taught me a valuable lesson that I would never forget. In trying to help him, Matthew ended up helping me.
Many years later, I read a book called The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. This book talks about how it is often in our own brokenness and suffering and woundedness that we find the capacity to be a source of healing for others. For me, it was a small, frail, helpless, profoundly brain damaged boy, whose smile and spirit never faltered in the face of such terrible woundedness, who became my wounded healer.
Some might think Matthew’s life was not worth living, and that parents of children like Matthew should end their lives even before they begin. With a simple surgical procedure, a lifetime of sacrifice, struggle and heartache on behalf of a child who will never live a “normal” life is avoided. Some might say the decision is a ‘no-brainer’, and that only fools would go through what Matthew’s parents went through. In the utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain, value and burden to society, debit and credit, Matthew’s life may have seemed a complete drain on people’s time, effort and resources, and all for naught. Some would say our energies are better spent elsewhere than on a damaged child who derives no discernible benefit from the extraordinary expenditure of time and effort by so many for his sake.
But I know better than that. Matthew touched the hearts of everyone he met. He taught me the most important lesson of all, and he did it with only a smile. It was all he had; it was all he needed. I gave him an hour a week of my time and he gave me back so much more.
Matthew taught me the real worth of human life is not something that can be measured, quantified, predicted or dismissed. He needed help from a lot of people to live a modest life, but the time, energy and sacrifice freely given by so many perfect strangers on his behalf, he repaid it all ten times over with an astonishing capacity for love that flowed freely from his wounds.
©Edward M. Lopez, Holy Week 2005