We love going to the zoo with our son. The best part is seeing animals that we do not usually see, as well as open space to run. We bring his iPad with his communication program on it and we practice saying things like: “I see elephant” “I see bird” “I see lizard” and even more complex sentences such as “I like elephant.” Our son engages better sometimes than other times, and there is of course always an “I want peanut butter & jelly” thrown in, as that is his favorite sentence to create. So when we are in front of an animal I encourage him to press the appropriate buttons and/or I do it to model conversation. Inevitably, the children that are nearby watching the animal move their gaze from the animal to us.
None of them say, “Hello” or engage in a conversation, and worse, their parents do not stop them from gawking. I bet if their children were staring at a wheelchair or a prosthetic they would at least be embarrassed and try to discreetly change their child’s gaze, and the great parents would engage in a conversation with the one that has a different ability. Yes, they may wait to do it privately, but I am the one there and I would put money on that not being true. I also hope you notice that it is quite ironic we are looking to teach our son to converse and the response is to stare and say nothing.
I do have to admit that in some circumstances people are awesome, like when we went to ”Build-a-Bear” after the zoo (we had a gift certificate) and when we pulled out his iPad to respond what he saw at the zoo earlier, the sales person was wonderful. She asked what he saw at the zoo, and he navigated off the zoo page and said, “I want peanut butter and jelly.” She laughed appropriately, as I did as well. Eventually he choose a black cat. He loved watching the stuffing being mixed and he picked out a hat for his cat. We named the cat and added a tutu. However, most people are not as patient and kind as the sales person, and I noticed parents and other children staring at him as he enjoyed and squealed making his stuffed cat.
Honestly, the stares and the ignoring don’t bother me personally. Well I lie, but I am so used to it and I know it is more about them seeing something new, than having anything to do with my son or myself. The staring children are just curious and interested, which I totally understand, and I wait for the bold one that asks about why we use the iPad. I will probably tear up when I show that bold child, and perhaps my son will make a friend even just for that moment in front of the elephants. The ignoring parents are probably pushing something down they do not want to deal with. It reminds me of the fear some have seeing a body of a deceased loved one. They do not want to deal with the image of mortality, or reality.
By ignoring my son, the parents are ignoring questions about their abilities, their children’s, and also why they are “blessed” and others are not. It is the question of theodicy. It is honestly the most important part of one’s theology: if you believe that God is good and is Love and is omnipotent, why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa?
So how do you answer this essential question? Do you ignore it despite your children’s curiosity (or congregants)? Do you make up excuses and exceptions? The excuses include things like but not limited to: God gave us free-will or God never gives us more than we can handle. Exceptions include but are not limited to: everything happens for a reason, we learn from our suffering, suffering creates character.
None of these answer the question, which should not be ignored--but it should never be answered. It must be lived and engaged. If you start to answer the question, you will find that theology falls short and you end up with yourself or God as judge.
When we gather with other families that have a child with special needs (or others with different abilities) the question why is never ignored, but answers are never provided. The answer is lived by bucking normal. This is exactly what we need to do as church: stop hiding from the hard question and stop trying to answer it; rather, let us live the answer: Love.