“Retarded?” No, I’m not talking about the Democrats, or liberal media, like Ann Coulter might. I’m not talking about those who intentionally make foolish choices, as though they were handicapped.
I’m talking about people born with no mind, who can only feel, and not even show much of that. I’m talking about human beings who are dependent on others for their very lives, who require attendance 24/7. I’m talking about bodies without souls.
I’m talking about not just the deformed, but the broken, the forever lost, the empty life forms milling about before us all, and the motionless, vapid bodies reclining in our midst.
Who are they? What are they?
How does God Almighty regard them? Do they have any sense of right and wrong? Do they have any moral responsibility? Are they capable?
Earlier today, when grocery shopping, I saw an older woman in one of the power chairs, gently rolling along the aisle. Behind her, following her, holding on to the back of the chair, was a young girl, probably around 13 or 14. She had beautiful long, wavy brown hair, pale but impeccable, porcelin skin. Then I noticed her dark brown eyes. She was severely retarded. She held on to the back of the chair with one hand. She was being led along, behind the chair, as if she were tied, or hitched–by her own willing hand. She was with apparently her grandmother, who evidently looked after her.
Suddenly, I was ready to burst into raging tears, and to scream out to heaven, “God! God have mercy!” What in Hell was this thing before me? What manner of Damnation moved so gently before my eyes? What curse strolled so innocently down the isle?
How is it to be understood? What does it mean?
Forever. It was forever. The girl would never have a life. She could stand, walk, maybe see, maybe talk a little. Would she ever know love? Would she know joy? Would she ever hear Debussy’s “L’Isle joyeuse“? Did she have any thought of God? Was their any spiritual life present?
Vladimir Horowitz performing Claude Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse [joyous island], written in 1904. Early Horowitz live recording.
The prospect of a human being in but the most hollow image of God is a most unbearable tragedy. I can scarcely sustain the thought. Not long. How can it be?
Robert Castel’s The Regulation of Madness (1988), originally published in 1976 as L’Ordre psychiatrique, offers a simple, objective account of the history of madness in France, beginning with the 1790 Constituent Assembly. From that date, March 27, all “insane” persons would be examined in three months, and either freed or cared for in hospitals especially for them. An interesting concept, but before two centuries passed, the trend became the opposite, to de-institutionalize such “patients.” It was more human to put individuals in home care situations, if at all possible. Group homes. Half-way houses. As society has out-grown much of the superstitions associated with insanity, it seemed the family’s responsibility to care for the needy ones. By the early 1970’s, Thomas Szasz pushed it to the point of suggesting denial that the mental illness was so genuine as the profession of psychiatry had made out to be. See, The Myth of Mental Illness, by Thomas S. Szasz (1974). Of course, Szasz was speaking of neurosis, really, and not retardation or handicap, congenital or acquired.
But the theological question is the same. Are the mentally incapable to be regarded as morally or spiritually incapable also? Do they have hope of eternal life? Parents of such are often remarkably generous, loving, and even forgiving about it. They show nothing but love, special love, for special needs children. But what of eternity? We are theologically nurtured with the thought that eternity is the reward of spirituality–earnestly sought. The pearl of great price is the forgiveness of God. But, can a severely retarded person seek anything but basic bodily functions?
American Indians, at least out on the plains, whenever encountering the “mentally” ill, often called them mud heads. Perhaps this notion came from the Hopi, and the Koyemsi Kachinas. I don’t know. I know I heard of it long ago, from my mother. Indians have an especially simple regard for the mud heads (retarded and Down Syndrome patients). It is not as if anything is particularly wrong with them. Indians just sort of smile at it, if anything.
I know something special happened at the 2012 New Year’s pow-wow hear in Oklahoma City, at the state fair grounds. Mike Burgess (former Comanche Nation chairman) was the MC. I will always remember this pow-wow. Long into the evening, the drum called us farther and farther into the spirit. At a height of intensity, a young white man came out into the arena with the gourd dancers, and starting riding the rhythm, hard! He was short of stature.
He was a mud head.
Lo and behold, he danced like it was the most wonderful feeling he’d ever had–that any human being had ever had. The look on his face was inimitable joy. He had no gourd, and no fan. He wore no Indian clothes. He just came in, came in to the heart of the drum, into the heart of the spirit. He held his left hand, with a fist, higher and higher, and his smile grew wider and wider, as if he were knocking on the door of heaven, and the Spirit of God came into him. Oh, he was high, like no one in the world had ever been high.
Nor was he ashamed, at all. He was utterly unabashed. He was free. For that moment, in that time, in that place, he was in heaven.
It was one of the most remarkable things I’d ever seen. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I know there were tears welled up in my eyes. I was close enough to see Mike, and I could see there were tears in his eyes, too. We felt the same feeling.
It was a holy triumph of some kind. The young man transcended whatever his handicap was. On the beat of the plains Indian drum, he found his wings. We Indians had given him that glory.
In a way, it was a transcendent spiritual moment of us, too. His innocence, his obvious deformity, yet, his obvious joy, his pure delight in the drum. There with us, a horde of Indian gourd dancers, I venture the spirit spoke to all of us.
I shall never forget that strange moment. It was somehow, indeed sacred, in a way I had never known the sacred before.
It was sublime, yet also ridiculous. It was sacred, yet mockery. It was indescribable, yet obvious.
I don’t think anyone there knew the young white mud head. He was foreign but for his free ride on the Indian drum beat. At that moment, he was truly one of us. Maybe even more than us. Yet, he might have been just a local wanderer, who heard the call of the drum. I don’t know.
I know that the mind is our ultimate treasure. Impossible as it is to grasp, consciousness is our only resource. Without it, we lose the imago dei, the image of God. We do not know him.
If a mud head can know joy, can he not also know beauty? Is it a song of degrees? Can he know his Creator?