Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Worth and Dignity

(Photo taken in the Butterfly House, Whitehouse, Ohio)

Back in the late 70s I worked for one year and three summers at United Cerebral Palsy Center of Will County, Illinois. I was a teacher's assistant. A helper. There, I earned a B.A. I was a Bathroom Assistant. I took boys and men who could not toilet themselves into the bathroom, and assisted them.

I brought my guitar into the classes, and played and sang for the students. I carried out tasks given me by the teacher, Mrs. Gulick. I drove the Center's station wagon, picking up kids early in the morning for school, dropping them off after school was over. 

One of the students was an autistic girl named Gail. We had to tie her shoes in double knots, and fasten her clothing top and pants together with safety pins. Because, untied and unpinned, Gail would begin to take everything off, and throw it, with force! 

One day, driving through the northern Illinois countryside with Gail in the back seat of the station wagon, I was shocked when one of her tennis shoes whizzed by my right ear, slamming into the front window of the car. Gail had gotten her shoe off!

I remember David, a young man who was an idiot savant. David was mentally handicapped, but displayed brilliance and genius when it came to birthdays. David could instantly tell you what your birth date was, and what day of the week  your birthday will fall on in 2050, or 2051, or you-pick-the-year. 

Helen was a charming, beautiful, physically handicapped young woman who was intelligent and caring. She could not talk, and communicated through wearing a pointer strapped to her head, with which she touched letters on a small table attached to her wheelchair. One of my privileges was to feed Helen. I had to insert the food, using my fingers, into Helen's mouth, positioning it between her molars. She always smiled when I fed her. Helen was grace-filled and other-centered.

I remember James, whose legs were inoperative and atrophied, but whose biceps were huge. James could do push ups from a sitting position, skinny legs extended. I remember Jimmy, a Down's Syndrome boy. I loved his smile, and wrote a song about him, which I sang for Jimmy at our Annual Graduation Ceremony.

I learned so much from my time there. I saw human dignity on display, exemplified in the staff, the teachers, and the students.

Every person has worth. And dignity. Why?

The worth of a person cannot be in how they look, because a few of our students were disfigured. A person's worth cannot be in their accomplishments, since some of our students accomplished nothing. The worth of a person cannot be in their possessions, since many of our students not only had little, but could not comprehend how impoverished they were.

How, then, are we to understand the worth and dignity of persons? It can't be found in atheism. (See, as an example of this, atheist Steven Pinker's essay "The Stupidity of Dignity.")

It can be found in Judeo-Christianity. Beginning in the beginning:

So God created mankind in his own image,

    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26

This imago dei is core humanity. It resides deep in us, and is unresponsive to our successes and strengths, our failures and infirmities, our wealth or poverty.

(For deep reading on human worth and dignity, see the 555-page report from the President's Council on Bioethics, Human Dignity and Bioethics.)