One year ago, a severely disabled woman took her final breaths and slipped quietly into eternity.
While discussions about the legacy of Terri Schiavo have focused primarily on the circumstances of her tragic death, it is also useful, and extremely edifying, to reflect on what Terri’s life can teach us.
What Terri and all persons with disabilities offer is something invaluable in today’s world. They can show us how to love, and thus, how to live.
Weighing in two years before her death, a New York Times editorial philosophized: "True respect for life includes recognizing not just when it exists, but when it ceases to be meaningful." However, anybody who has spent significant time with a person with a disability understands how meaningful their lives can be.
Perhaps the only thing they can do is to receive the loving service of their family and nurses, as was the case with Terri Schiavo. But the deep, self-giving love that people with disabilities require allows those around them to learn the intrinsic value of service to others, of bearing another’s burdens, of unconditional love. Can anyone doubt that Terri’s family — as they pleaded to take on the burden of caring for her — learned these lessons well?
People with disabilities awaken our hearts because in order to care for them properly we must do more. Our hearts must enlarge for them or the love dies, and often they die.
In a time where superficial, selfish and exploitative relationships have become the norm for many people — as evidenced by all-time-high rates of divorce, domestic abuse, depression and suicide — people with disabilities force us to move beyond ourselves and to grow to a more profound understanding and living out of authentic love.
An authentic love is by its nature self-giving and patient. It is a love that is certainly demanding. However, this is precisely the source of its beauty. By the very fact that it is demanding it builds the true good of man and allows it to radiate to others. Yes, even Terri Schiavo, as a severely brain damaged woman of fifteen years, radiated that love. Ask her parents.
Loving the disabled is not simply about doing good deeds but also about being open and vulnerable to them in order not only to give love but also to receive the genuine love that they yearn to express. We must celebrate their lives with them, because the worst of times can also be the best.
What do persons with disabilities have to offer? They will change us. They will call us to be people of mutual trust; they will help us to learn how to listen. They will call us out of our individualism, break down our prejudices, and help us sustain our relationships. It is all of these characteristics of love that are brought out when one encounters a person with a disability, and it is also the type of love that is required in all of our relationships with our spouses, family, friends, co-workers, etc. It is a love that is sadly lacking in our culture.
We live in a society where nine of every 10 Down syndrome babies are aborted once their disability is detected; a society whose courts have created a jurisprudence to justify murders of convenience. We destroy them because they are deficient, we feel, in some crucial way.
Yet, in an apparent paradox, it is the weak and the disabled among us who have the innate strength and ability to compel us to strive for and fulfill the most profound and difficult of human obligations — to love unreservedly, unconditionally, even radically.
We need to rediscover this authentic, self-giving love in all areas, and we can learn it from the disabled, just as Terri’s family learned it from her.
The disabled will help us discover our common humanity, liberate us from self-centered, disordered notions of love, break down barriers of rejection and begin the process of truly becoming human. But we must allow them.