Photo: Library of Congress – Main Reading Room. Photo by Marcus Walton
I’ve been to a lot of the sites on the National Mall by now—the Capitol, a few of the Smithsonians, the memorials, etc. And the public workers at these places—the ticket takers, bag checkers, counter sitters, lunch servers, register attenders—have consistently been . . . rude? I don’t know if this is the right word. The right word is cold. And I don’t expect them to be on fire for their job; cold is fine. So I feel responsible for being a little warmer than what they’re perhaps used to (and than what I’m used to, really). I try to be friendly and am shut down, over and over.
Me: How are you today?
Them: What? Open your bag.
I open my bag, they listlessly probe it with what looks like a greasy, if-there-were-such-a-thing, UNmagic wand.
And indeed, were I to pull an astonished rabbit out of my bike helmet I think they would only say, “There are no rabbits allowed in the Museum of Natural History.” (Which is absurd; she’d go in the mammal section.)
But you perhaps sympathize with my plight. When presenting people with a furry, gentle rabbit, it feels perverse and hurtful for them, one after another, to mumble, “Screw rabbits. Your identification, please.”
(Note: L’Arche is French for the Ark. Thus, the title of this essay.)
So I’m in the Library of Congress. I’ve just been mildly bullied through their metal detector and instructed to check my book bag at the coat check. I approach the coat check and ask, “Hey, how you doing?”
So I start pulling out the things I’ll want to take in with me, including my laptop. The coat checker mumbles “Take the laptop out of the case, you can’t . . .”
I have no idea what he’s just said. “What?”
“I SAID, TAKE THE LAPTOP OUT OF THE CASE; YOU CAN’T TAKE THE CASE IN.”
This is not the first time in the past few days that someone has mumbled instructions at me, I say “What?”, and they yell the instructions again very slowly because—I presume—they perceive me as being deliberately obstinate. It not being the first time, and having just had my rabbit stepped on, I blew up and said something I really didn’t see coming: “I’M NOT RETARDED; I JUST DIDN’T HEAR YOU.”
At first, it was satisfying to have defended myself, to have bucked up from the mud I had perceived my face having been pushed down in. I had reclaimed my dignity. But the indignity of what I had said quickly dawned upon me.
Here I am spending my summer living with people with intellectual disabilities, and I had just used what is known in L’Arche communities as the “R word.”
What’s more, I had used it in an awfully derogatory way: “I’m not like one of them,” I said. “You’re treating me as if I’m one of them, without dignity, and I should be treated like a normal person, with dignity.” This was the heart of what I said. I thought about this for a while.
Later, when I left, I saw this man again. I told him that I was sorry for what I had said earlier, that I had been very rude. I didn’t explain what was especially wrong with exactly what I said, but I apologized for losing my temper with him. I was worried that he would blow me off but was resolved that my apology couldn’t be contingent on his response.
First he smiled, a big, warm, rabbit of a smile. Then he said, “Oh, that’s alright. I didn’t mean to be flippant when I asked you to take that laptop out of the case. You know, I just get to saying the same thing to everyone who walks through, all day, that my voice gets to sounding monotone and robotic, I guess.”
“Yeah, I could see that happening,” I said. I walked to the right to leave and he said, “Hey, the exit’s that way, actually.”
And again, there was a genuine gift of warmth in his voice. I hadn’t proved that he was human by pulling him out of his routine with my failed attempt at cordiality. Instead I found myself shown my own humanity in a moment of weakness, woundedness, and insecurity. And in that point of conflict we both experienced a true moment of gentle humility together, and were the more human for it.
The night before, I had been helping put one of the core people—I’ll just call him A.—to bed. A. needs help putting his pajamas on, help using the bathroom before he goes to bed, and he likes to be read to before going to bed.
A., because of his mental and physical disabilities, hasn’t done much manual labor in his life, and the evidence of this covers his hands in skin like a baby’s. There aren’t even that many wrinkles on his palms; I imagine a palm reader would have only to share in the silence that A. practices on a daily basis.
A. isn’t verbal, except for being able to say “Mamma” and “Daddy.” But he rocks back and forth, showing his pleasure at being read a book. He puts his soft hands to the sides of his face, smiles warmly, and groans with pleasure when he sees a friend walk into the room. His eyes are pure gentleness when I pull the covers up to his chin and I read the book to him again. His eyes close, and he is asleep in no time, passing effortlessly from the world of consciousness.
I have been going through the world with a bit too much gravity, perhaps. I’ve mirrored within myself the momentum of the subway cars I’ve ridden, the heaviness of the books I’ve read, the stoicism of the Greek statues lining the fronts of museums, the restless rigidity of passing legislators.
But A. demonstrates gentleness in the way he navigates the world, and he shares it straight through his eyes. He gives it without even trying, and he doesn’t seem to expect anything in return.
I know that if I want to make a gift of any gentleness I might be so blessed as to receive from the same Spirit that fills A., then I’ll have to give it the same way it is given to me: freely and without expectation.
Marcus Walton, Nashville native and son of a secretary of a Baptist church and a blue-collar retiree, generally wishes he were napping. With one year left at Duke Divinity School, he is currently scheming small ways to pay back a nightmare-inducing amount of student-loan debt. If he had his druthers, he would keep afloat and somehow do some good in the world via writing and performing artsy folk songs. He was recently confirmed in the Anglican Church. He is blogging about his experiences in L’Arche this summer at www.larchedc.blogspot.com.
Find out more about why L’Arche doesn’t use the “R word” at www.r-word.org.