(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Please indulge me for a moment and close your eyes. Now, imagine what it would be like if your present inability to see is permanent. You will never view another face, the trees outside, or the latest movie at the theatre. To take this exercise further, imagine what you would do if in about an hour you cannot remember your way home. Or, during social time after the service, others are talking a great book to read but you don’t understand what they are talking about – and cannot contribute to the conversation. Or, right now, you realize you need to use the restroom but you cannot get up and walk there.
Take a few moments to put yourself in those situations and imagine how you would feel.
To take this exercise further, and in keeping with my message series this month on love, imagine if everyone here is single you and you are attracted to another person here. Indeed, you fall in love with that person and want to initiate a relationship with her or him. But others, including people with good intentions, say that’s not possible for you – or that you are incapable of understanding love because of your physical or intellectual other-ableness. Once again, how would you feel?
You may open your eyes now as I hope this exercise in empathy for the other abled was thought provoking. I encourage you to think more about it later today.
Two weeks ago, as a part of my series on diversity love, I looked at a beautiful fictional African-American love story in a book entitled An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. While the book deals with issues of race, its primary theme is about the universality of love, heartbreak, and dealing with the loss of affection.
Last week, I considered the love between two men – the Ancient Roman Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinuos. Their diverse story highlighted the ideal of sacrificial love and how genuine love for another is usually unconditional. We love her or him without expecting anything in return.
Today, I offer the story of a modern couple – Bill Ott and Shelley Belgard, shown on the cover of your programs. Bill is other-abled with Down’s Syndrome. Shelley was born with hydrocephalus – excess fluid around the brain. That caused her to be intellectually other-abled.
The two met when Bill was 12 and Shelley was 15. When Bill introduced himself, Shelley’s face lit up with a big smile. Bill was immediately smitten. “I didn’t know what love meant until I met her,” Bill now says.
For her, Shelley likens that moment to a scene from a movie. “I was looking at this awesome guy and I really didn’t want to blow it. I kind of wanted to play it safe while at the same time I didn’t.”
The two quickly became a teenage couple in love. They went on dates and attended Bill’s Junior and Senior High proms – both of them joyously dancing alongside their peers. Their parents helped them in their romance – driving them to various events where they could dance – which they both love to do.
But after High School, when Bill and Shelley moved into different group homes with other-abled persons, they grew apart and eventually lost touch. A little over ten years later, on a cruise organized for other-abled persons, they met again. As full-fledged adults, they immediately rekindled their romance. When Shelley got seasick on the cruise, Bill volunteered to be her helper and, apparently, things got serious.
Two years later, Bill proposed to Shelley. She quickly said, “yes” but both sets of their parents had misgivings. Did they understand what marriage meant? Could they function as a give-and-take couple? And what about sex and the possibility of Shelley getting pregnant and giving birth to child they would have difficulty raising?
The two suggested they live together, but remain abstinent, to see if they could live as a couple. Like any two people in a new relationship, they had their ups and downs. They had to learn how to handle disagreements – something that every couple must learn. They turned to a therapist who guided them through exercises for lovingly talking through issues. That’s a skill they still must intentionally practice – but its one they do well. And, just to reassure their parents, Bill underwent a vasectomy.
As with many couples, the two beautifully compliment each other’s abilities. Bill is great with directions so he is Shelley’s guide wherever they go since she often gets lost. When he has difficulty with diction and being understood by others, Shelley quickly steps in to translate. She has no trouble understanding what Bill says.
While it was deemed by their parents, who are still their guardians, that Bill and Shelley should not be legally married since they supposedly cannot understand its full meaning (something which seems terribly discriminatory) the two went forward and held a commitment ceremony which everyone present considered a marriage celebration anyway. Bill and Shelley danced their first dance as a married couple to the song “At Last” – and then they exuberantly joined in dancing with all the guests – including their parents. In a toast to his bride, Bill said the very best part of their relationship was to be able to live with someone he has loved since they first met fifteen years earlier. The two are still happily together with each working to support themselves – Bill as a grocery bagger, Shelley as a mail room clerk.
When I did research for this message series, I was touched by each of the three love stories. The love described in the book An American Marriage is joyous just as the loss of love made me cry. The history of Hadrian and Antinuos’ love story is equally beautiful – especially Antinuos’s sacrificial suicide and Hadrian’s epic efforts to memorialize him. Bill and Shelley’s love story is one that also moved me – it is a love that is sincere and natural in expression. The two are exactly like all lovers and, indeed, they could teach other couples a few things about self-awareness, mutual support, and commitment.
Most of all, the thing that figuratively makes my heart sing is that love between any two people is no different from that shown by all people. African-American, gay, or other-abled, each of the three couples and their stories I’ve highlighted this month represent very similar ideals about love. To repeat what I said last Sunday and the week before, love is love no matter who the two are.
Love is thrilling and often all consuming. As Tayari Jones says in her novel An American Marriage, love doesn’t just inhabit a home, it becomes the home and is the source of security, happiness, peace, and companionship for any two people. And when love is lost, with a break-up, death, or an inability to resolve differences, the effect is often devastating and rarely forgotten.
I shared in my message two weeks ago how the loss of my marriage to my wife, because I realized I am gay, is something for which I still feel great sadness. I still love my ex-wife. Someone after that service shared a similar story with me. This person teared up as they called to mind their story. Heartbreak from an end of love – no matter how it happens – is universal. So too is the emotion of total joy when we fall in love – as shown by Bill Ott and Shelley Belgard.
An added lesson we learn from Bill and Shelley’s love story is that feeling love is an emotion for the complete person. Too many people think they are in love because they are attracted to the other’s physical beauty. But if we get to know someone to whom we perceive as outwardly beautiful or handsome, we are either further attracted to them because of their inner kindness, integrity, sense of humor, and grace, or we are repelled by their arrogance, selfishness, and aloof attitude.
Interestingly, Bill has noted that he knew his love for Shelley was real when he realized she was, “a woman who would not prejudge me from the outside – and instead look inside.” And Shelley truly fell in love with Bill when she understood he loved her inner self too. As she said about Bill, “He just gets me.”
What Bill and Shelley know is what many other-abled couples know. They are primarily attracted to the inner person. They reject what our culture tells us – that it is physical beauty, wealth, or intellectual firepower that is most attractive. While every person is physically beautiful in unique ways, our culture too often trivializes beauty by thinking it means to be outwardly attractive and supposedly perfect in form. We forget that beauty is found in many ways – but it’s most importantly found in someone’s heart and soul. To be warm, friendly, kind, sincere, honest, and humble is, for most of us, to be beautiful. To be an athletic and muscular male, or a curvaceous, young woman, may outwardly be attractive, but when considering the whole individual, those attributes can often be all that someone has to offer. Indeed, we each know outwardly beautiful people who are nasty, arrogant, or inwardly ugly.
What our cultural standard for beauty creates in many of us is implicit bias against the other-abled. Many people can patronize or infantilize the other-abled. We can too often see them as incomplete people who are not valued for their unique abilities and inner beauty. And so we look the other way when encountering them, or we offer them false sympathy, or we under-judge their skills and intelligence, or we treat them like young children. For me, that sounds like the implicit biases we can have for people of color, women, or seniors. Such people, like the other-abled, are too often marginalized as being less than some false idea of what is to be perfect, beautiful, or normal.
What is troubling is how prejudice against the other-abled is hypocritical – just as is discrimination against other marginalized groups. In truth, everybody is other-abled in some way. Many people wear glasses, hearing aids, are left-handed, need extra time to read and understand things, or occasionally forget names of friends and places. It is a sad fact about humanity that people can think everyone else is imperfect – but as for me, I’m perfect in every way! In other words, we can harshly judge others, but fail to take an honest look in the mirror.
Most of all, we can have a totally false idea of what constitutes perfection and beauty. That discriminatory attitude is one some have for the other-abled. Indeed, we have too long referred to the other-abled as handicapped, disabled, retarded, or worse…….as if to arrogantly assume that our abilities are the only supposedly right ones to have. We forget that everybody is “different” or other-abled in some way – which is why human diversity is so wonderful.
Our spiritual calling is to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person – the first Unitarian-Universalist principle. For the purposes of this message, that means to value the unique qualities and abilities in everybody – no matter who they are. We need to delete mistaken ideas we may have about what is beautiful, perfect, or “normally-abled.”
The lesson I’ve learned from Bill and Shelley’s love story – and the other two stories I’ve considered this month, is that Black Love Matters, Same-Sex Love Matters, Other-Abled Love Matters, Heterosexual Love Matters. Indeed, any form of Love Matters. Let us therefore examine our minds and our hearts to eliminate implicit biases we may have toward any type of love between consenting adults. If we do, we’ll then know that love is expressed in the wide diversity of humanity – and it must therefore be equally valued for all . Quite simply, and I can’t say this too often, love is love is love – no matter who the two are.
I wish you each much peace and joy.