October 26, 2009 9:32 AM
The Power of the Powerless
When I announced my intention of reading this touching book together, I had no idea my life would become so hectic with two unexpected trips to the Glenn Beck show and answering the email that followed.
I took my copy to the beach with us in case anyone in the family would want to read/reread it, intending to write about it as soon as we got home.
For the past couple weeks - though I'm sure I brought it home - I have been unable to find my copy anywhere. Which has led to the delay in my writing, because my copy was underlined, marked up and ready to go.
As it is, I can only write some general comments from memory - but I want to start so you can share your own insights and favorite parts.
I loved The Power of the Powerless: A Brother's Legacy of Love when I first read it seven years ago was because it resonated with what I'd learned so far from being Jonny's mother. Jonny, my 8th child, has Down syndrome and I realized early on that far from being just the passive recipient of our help, he had a God-given purpose in our lives.
As I wrote in A Little Extra - originally published in The Washington Times in 1999:
He's been a gift I never would have thought to ask for, bringing lessons I never knew I needed to learn. The greatest surprise is this: Our life together has been less about my helping him reach his potential than about him helping me reach mine.
Christopher De Vinck's brother Oliver was profoundly disabled - to the point that some would call him "a vegetable." But that reveals more about them than about Oliver.
My favorite part of the book - and my children's as well - was Christopher's revelation of how Oliver became a litmus test for potential girlfriends, and the contrast between the girl who didn't want to meet him and the woman he eventually married, who was open and willing to help.
Nowadays, some people might think the De Vincks could have done more for Oliver than just letting him rest beneath a sunny window and taking care of his physical and emotional needs. With the emphasis on early intervention and sensory stimulation, some might see the need for more activity. But the quiet serenity of Oliver's life and the almost temple-like atmosphere Christopher paints when he writes of feeding Oliver give me pause.
The fact is that the De Vincks' decision to bring Oliver home was quite heroic in those days, when there was so much fear and rejection of children who were different (compare Arthur Miller's kneejerk institutionalization of his son with Down syndrome). They didn't just preach to their children about the dignity of human life, but they lived it. The family sacrificed time and energy in caring for Oliver and there is never a sense that anyone would question it.
Oliver came to be a defining hub for his family. On the physical level, this was a simple result of meeting his material needs. But on an emotional and spiritual level, it was through the quiet working of God's grace as each member of the family set their needs aside and stopped to minister to someone who would never give back.
But Oliver did give back. Christopher's capacity for love is clearly reflected in his feeling for his parents and for his own children. And his devotion to learning more from others who wrote him after his story was published in the Wall Street Journal - and to being the messenger to delivering these stories to others - shows a love for humanity that I can't help but wonder might not be there had it not been for the presence of Oliver in his life.
Having a person like Oliver in our lives provides an opportunity not everyone is privileged to have. It is a chance to give with no thought of return. It is a chance to open your heart and see how God will fill it.
If you haven't read The Power of the Powerless, I encourage you to read it. Check your library or buy from Amazon (none at Paperback Swap). It's an easy read - no more than a couple hours - but it is a beautiful and simple message which will change the way you see the world. And a message you will want to share with others.
Hoping that those of you who still have your dog-eared and underlined copies will add some comments!
I was so moved by Christopher De Vinck's book! I love how he visited some of the people who wrote to him after reading the article about his brother Oliver; and then he shared their stories of how they learned from their loved ones with profound handicaps. In Chapter 6, Peter writes of his daughter Lauren, who died soon after birth, "The world is different because my daughter lived one day" (pg. 55), and "Because of her, my life and the lives of people I love are more beautiful" (pg. 58). In Chapter 8, Vince says of his son Anthony: "The way Anthony is, I would say that he moves us to action. . . We see a need for him . . . since Anthony, my attitude toward life is so different you wouldn't believe it. . . Anthony, the way he is, made me a better man" (pg. 83). In Chapter 14, Dan Hamann says of his brother Paul, who has Down syndrome, and others like him: "They are a message to us about life . . . because life is imperfect and life is full of hurt and life is full of pain and ugliness, but we still have to love, and we still have to care, to work our way through it. I know they are here for us. . . to change us forever so that we won't be what we would have otherwise been. I believe that we didn't have the choice which made all this happen to Paul, but we had the choice to make the transition, the transition to life and to love" (pg. 131). Our lives are richer because we do experience both pain and pleasure, both sadness and joy.
As I read this book I kept remembering an award-winning book for older children called "The Giver." In "The Giver," society has become insulated from pain and sadness by weeding out those with disabilities, and by hiding both the tragedy and the triumphs of history. The main character comes to realize how shallow the feelings of the people are because they've never known anything but an easy, comfortable existence.
Back to "The Power of the Powerless," and the author's brother Oliver . . . In Chapter 12, De Vinck writes about the many lessons he learned from Oliver, and I was particularly struck by this one: "There was one commandment in which he excelled: the fourth. He honored his mother and father, and he did it in a unique way. We usually think that people bring honor to their parents by their accomplishments . . . Oliver gave honor to his parents in a different way. He honored them by revealing them to us. We learned from him what kind of people Catherine and Jose are."
What a beautiful book! I will continue to recommend it to friends.
Posted by: Donica | October 26, 2009 4:34 PM
I just requested it through my library. I'm looking forward to reading it!
Posted by: Lucy | October 27, 2009 6:12 PM
I have a son with Down Syndrome and loved this book. I was struck by the mother's devotion to Oliver and the way he died was especially moving. It made me cry several times and it really made me think how valuable how all life is! My husband's grandmother is 96 years old and the day I finished reading it I went to visit her in a rehabilitation home she had been staying while she recovered from a fall. For so many of the very elderly, their families have written them off to just being on death's door - but their lives have value, just like Oliver's. Reading the book helped me see that more clearly.
Posted by: Kim Moore | October 28, 2009 1:09 AM
Barbara, as soon as you first announced it I ordered and read the book. I don't have experience with disabled children, but this book certainly provokes thought. What I've been thinking about is this: most people who don't want disabled children will say that "nobody should have to live that way" or something like that, as if they would do the child a favor by aborting it. They presume to know that the child wouldn't want to live that way because they can't stand the idea themselves. They don't consider that perhaps they are being selfish and lazy, and that it's their duty to give the child the best life they can. They don't consider that there might be spiritual value to living that way that we can't see. Certainly there is spiritual value to humbling yourself to care for the desperate needs of a disabled human being. What if they had a normal child who became disabled later in life? And what about all the normal children who grow up and literally throw their lives away? How does that fit in to their belief system? Many people now hold the notion that you have a right to throw your life away if you can't stand living it the way it is and don't see possible change. These ideas are all connected. I believe that to throw your life or someone else's away is to defy God by taking a prerogative that is not yours to take.
Posted by: evergreen | October 28, 2009 1:55 PM