Friday, 27 January 2012

Where can I find happiness?

Hat tip for this one to Richard at Linen On The Hedgerow.  It's taken from his listing of the week's top blog posts and consists of extracts from a speech given in the US by Archbishop Charles J Chaput at the Cardinal O'Connor Conference on Life.  For the full report, go over to Making Things Visible.

The speech refers to "Americans" but most of us in the First World can put our own names in instead, which is why I've bracketed "Americans" whenever it pops up!

There are rich blessings to be found in crosses accepted and sacrifices made for love.  In fact, as the parent of any disabled child must know, despite the difficulties and struggles we would hardly even describe our experience as a sacrifice.  It is a relationship with someone infinitely precious and a path into love.  How tragic not even to put one's foot onto the path to begin with...

How do we translate that message to the wider, secular world?  It's important, because it's a message not just about "pro life" but one that touches on the very question of what happiness is.  It's getting the answer to that question wrong that skews our perspective on everything else.

Archbishop Chaput said:

The great French Jesuit Henri de Lubac once wrote, “Suffering is the thread from which the stuff of joy is woven. Never will the optimist know joy.” Those seem like strange words, especially for [Americans]. We [Americans] take progress as an article of faith. And faith in progress demands a spirit of optimism.

But Father de Lubac knew that optimism and hope are very different creatures. In real life, bad things happen. Progress is not assured, and things that claim to be “progress” can sometimes be wicked and murderous instead. We can slip backward as a nation just as easily as we can advance. This is why optimism—and all the political slogans that go with it—are so often a cheat. Real hope and real joy are precious. They have a price. They emerge from the experience of suffering, which is made noble and given meaning by faith in a loving God.

A number of my friends have children with disabilities. Their problems range from cerebral palsy to Turner’s syndrome to Trisomy 18, which is extremely serious. But I want to focus on one fairly common genetic disability to make my point. I’m referring to Trisomy 21, or Down syndrome.

Down syndrome is not a disease. It’s a genetic disorder with a variety of symptoms. Currently about 5,000 children with Down syndrome are born in the United States each year. They join a national Down syndrome population of about 400,000 persons. But that population may soon dwindle. And the reason why it may decline illustrates, in a vivid way, a struggle within the [American] soul. That struggle will shape the character of our society in the decades to come.

Prenatal testing can now detect up to 95 percent of pregnancies with a strong risk of Down syndrome. The tests aren’t conclusive. They can’t give a firm yes or no. But they’re pretty good. And the results of those tests are brutally practical. Studies show that more than 80 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome now get terminated in the womb. They’re killed because of a flaw in one of their chromosomes—a flaw that’s neither fatal nor contagious, but merely undesirable.

I’m not suggesting that doctors should hold back vital knowledge from parents. Nor should they paint an implausibly upbeat picture of life with a child who has a disability. Facts and resources are crucial in helping adult persons prepare themselves for difficult challenges. But doctors, genetic counselors, and medical school professors should have on staff—or at least on speed dial—experts of a different sort.

Parents of children with special needs, special education teachers and therapists, and pediatricians who have treated children with disabilities often have a hugely life-affirming perspective. Unlike prenatal caregivers, these professionals have direct knowledge of persons with special needs. They know their potential. They’ve seen their accomplishments. They can testify to the benefits—often miraculous—of parental love and faith. Expectant parents deserve to know that a child with Down syndrome can love, laugh, learn, work, feel hope and excitement, make friends, and create joy for others. These things are beautiful precisely because they transcend what we expect. They witness to the truth that every child with special needs has a value that matters eternally.

Raising a child with Down syndrome can be demanding. It always involves some degree of suffering. Parents grow up very fast. None of my friends who has a daughter or a son with a serious disability is melodramatic, or self-conscious, or even especially pious about it. They speak about their special child with an unsentimental realism. It’s a realism flowing out of love—real love, the kind that forces its way through fear and suffering to a decision, finally, to surround the child with their heart and trust in the goodness of God. And that decision to trust, of course, demands not just real love, but also real courage.

The real choice in accepting or rejecting a child with special needs is never between some imaginary perfection and imperfection. None of us is perfect. No child is perfect. The real choice in accepting or rejecting a child with special needs is between love and unlove; between courage and cowardice; between trust and fear. That’s the choice we face when it happens in our personal experience. And that’s the choice we face as a society in deciding which human lives we will treat as valuable, and which we will not.

And, just as some people resent the imperfection, the inconvenience, and the expense of persons with disabilities, others see in them an invitation to learn how to love deeply and without counting the cost. These children with disabilities are not a burden; they’re a priceless gift to all of us. They’re a doorway to the real meaning of our humanity. Whatever suffering we endure to welcome, protect, and ennoble these special children is worth it because they’re a pathway to real hope and real joy. Abortion kills a child; it wounds a precious part of a woman’s own dignity and identity; and it steals hope. That’s why it’s wrong. That’s why it needs to end.

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