As someone with significant disabilities, I worry that I am a burden on people around me. I tell myself monster-stories about how much better the lives of my loved ones would be if they didn’t have to sacrifice on my behalf. I imagine that such thoughts are noble, rather than pitiful. Yesterday, I was deciding what animal to draw this month and I heard a lovely story about a band of elephants that takes care of one of its members with disabilities.
Boyd Varty writes about the band of elephants that includes a young female who naturalists call Elvis, who was born with backward, fused knees. When she couldn’t get up a slope, Varty observed another elephant pushing her up. The whole band, he thinks, move at a slower pace to allow for her infirmity.
If a band of elephants can do it, why not a band of humans?
Social worker Marcia Naomi Berger explains that in Hebrew, “the word for love — ahavah — includes the Aramaic word hav, which means ‘Give!’ (And the initial letter alef makes it mean, ‘I will give.’) “Loving,” she says, “is not so much receiving, as giving of oneself, and making sacrifices for others.”
But what if you, like me, are the recipient?
Givers need recipients. It’s the cycle that creates bonds of love and belonging, the glue that creates community. (The promises interlink: loving without keeping score is related to asking for and accepting help gracefully.)
Relationship expert John Amodeo suggests that when we find ourselves rejecting a gift, compliment, or tender touch we take a moment to notice what’s happening in our bodies. “How do you feel in your stomach and chest to be gifted with such kindness?”
We need to get out of our heads, lest “lost in the folds of our thought process, the beauty of the gift slips out of our hands.”
We are in control when we give, but not when we receive. As recipients, we are vulnerable. Descending into the soft heart of vulnerability, we become real.
As I read Amodeo’s article, I recognize my own brittle rejection of reality. I want to be the giver. I want to be independent and capable and I am no longer. When I insist on trying to drive the wheelchair on a night my arm can no longer do the task, I am pushing away caring relationship with the one who is offering to help.
Living with disability invites me to enter into love in a different way than was imagined by the makers of the Hebrew language or by my pioneer ancestors. Letting my body and heart be soft, I can open myself to connection and reject the isolation which is so common in today’s world.
May Elvis the elephant be my teacher.
I recall telling homebound members of my congregation that they needed to see themselves as gifts to those who came to visit them, bring them food, assist them, pick them up for a ride to church/shopping/doctor appointments… because they were giving these others an opportunity to live out the caring for others to which Christians are called. In fact, I become increasingly convinced, it is a grater gift to be the giver of this opporunity, than the giver of the assistance… there is almost always more stuggle, pain, difficulty, inconvenience in the life of the “recipient” than in the lives of the givers of these small kindnesses. As one who is not hampered much by physical limitations, I also frequently need to remind myself of this truth! (And, too, it is possible that the herd which surrounds Elvis and is slowed to her pace, has more time for personal reflection and meditation and is, on the whole, wiser, calmer, and more peaceful than most elephant herds!)
Thanks for your wisdom and gentle humor, Charles. We recipients need to hear that message.