I recently was at Hope College and Western Theological Seminary attending the 2016 Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. The learning was fast and full. There was so much wisdom and insight shared. I will be digesting it for a long time. One of the sessions from which I gained the most was one led by Tom Reynolds* on vulnerability in creating relationship and belonging.
Tom spoke of the need to be vulnerable, to “give way” to others, to listen. He used the metaphor of jazz musicians practicing call and response, giving way to one another, listening, being changed by the contribution of the other and making beautiful music together. Even mistakes can be redeemed by careful listening, by the right note played in response. Tom said, “There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions.”
As the conversation in the room progressed I began to think of the concept of vulnerability in relationship to my own daughter. I am usually willing to be vulnerable but I do not feel the same way about her. I do not want her to be vulnerable. I do not want her to be hurt or to suffer. Therefore I have tried very hard to protect her.
As she was growing up I was careful about the clothes she wore, about the way she did her hair, about getting her make-up. I worked on her social skills. I tried to help mold her into the most socially acceptable person I could imagine her to be – hoping that she would escape any kind of exclusion or persecution for being different.
Since my daughter is on the spectrum she has that chameleon-like quality of many young women with Aspergers. She tries to mimic what is going on around her in order to fit in. She also cares a lot about my opinion and what I think. Looking back, I can see that I subtly (or not so subtly) took advantage of that. “You could be anything? Well then why not be this?” I wasn’t listening carefully enough for her lead. I wasn’t helping her find out who she really was – at least not if it didn’t fit in with my dreams of who she might be.
I even called my efforts “saving her from herself.” I would tell friends that sometimes you have to save kids from themselves and not let them cut their hair or wear certain clothes or do certain things in order to save them from negative social consequences. But I see now that instead of saving her from herself I might have made her more alienated from herself – anxious about who she really was and whether or not that was acceptable.
Now that she’s in college, my daughter has been discovering who she is without her mom’s judgment and control. She is becoming herself. She cut her hair really, really short. She dyed it red, then blue, then silver. She wears lots of t-shirts with obscure anime and computer game references. She recently told me that she’d like to get rid of a lot of her clothes and develop a more tailored look wearing menswear. I am so grateful that she found a group of friends that seem to accept her for herself – in many ways better than I do. And I am learning the art of letting go. I am “giving way” for her to grow into herself in an authentic way, in her appearance and in many other dimensions. She is happier that way. She may not be less vulnerable but she is more comfortable in her own skin.
Tom talked about his anxiety in learning to play jazz music. He noted with appreciation the encouragement that he got from the older, more experienced musicians. They said, “Just play. It will be alright.” And that’s what I’d say to my daughter now – “Just play. It will be alright. Take a risk. Step out. Even if you make a mistake, you can still make beautiful music. Below you, where you can’t even see it, is a big safety net called the grace and love of God. There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions.”
In our personal lives and in our congregations, we need to “give way,” to listen carefully, to help others discover who they really are and what gifts they have to share – not impose on them what we want them to be, nor what we assume them to be. We don’t need to save or fix them. We need to listen to the notes they play and respond in ways that affirm them and weave them into the larger song of the community. We need to learn how to be the Body of Christ, honoring each part as a unique, precious, and valuable part contributing to the whole.
*Thomas E. Reynolds is Associate Professor of Theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto. He is the author of Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality.