To See Face to Face

Once upon a time, I was a college student in need of a job. The Massachusetts Association for the Blind needed aides in its residential school for children with multiple handicaps. With visions of Anne Sullivan dancing in my head, I went for an interview. The director checked to see that I had a pulse, then hired me.

I worked the 3-11 shift, in the highest-functioning class. None of the kids spoke, although a few had a little bit of sign language–10 or 15 words, at most. One of the boys, Kevin, had a chart with pictures and could communicate maybe 100 words by pointing. All of them behaved in strange and off-putting ways–lots of peculiar vocalizations, rocking and other kinds of self-stimulating, hair twirling and pulling, constant masturbation, sketchy toileting habits, and “self-feeding skills” that made every meal its own little apocalypse. One girl anxiously gulped air all day long, so that by the end of every day her stomach was as distended as that of a woman many months pregnant. All of them had been essentially abandoned by their parents, although two or three mothers still came to visit every few weeks or months–as often as they could bear it, I think. The whole building reeked of urine and despair.

My idealism was sapped by the end of my third day. Still, I tried, snobbishly, not to engage in the cynical joking of some of the staff members; I was primly horrified. I wish I could go back and slap my self-righteous face. Some of them had been there for years, devoted, and I understood nothing of the gritty love that brought them back into that stinking building, day after day, to tend to children who gave no sign of recognition, let alone appreciation. I wish now that I could go back again, confess my shame, offer myself as apprentice, beg them to teach me.

One of the boys, Dwayne, was 16–tall and painfully thin, severely affected by cerebral palsy. His muscles were wiry and strong from the constant exercise of unrelenting spasms. He wet his pants several times a day, in what many of the teachers and aides thought was just a ploy to win one-on-one attention. Some nights I spent most of my shift pleading with him to sit down on the toilet and then helping him, over and over, change into dry clothes.

I arrived one afternoon and thought the classroom smelled especially bad–the aide on the shift before me warned me that Dwayne had diarrhea. Since I was still the new kid, I knew dealing with this would be my task for the day. At first it wasn’t too bad–I got him to actually use the toilet a couple of times, and we made it a couple of hours before the first wardrobe change. But the fourth or fifth time I took him to the bathroom, he balked. He unbuttoned his pants, but didn’t want to sit down on the toilet. I tried all of my powers of persuasion, but my eloquence failed to convince, so I tried to physically guide him onto the seat–accomplishing this with minimal force was both a legal requirement and my desperate wish. But he became agitated and started to really fight me. We probably weighed about the same, but his long arms and big hands were much, much stronger than mine. Before I realized what was happening, he reached over and grabbed my hair on both sides of my head–I was in the habit of French-braiding my hair when I went to work, and somehow he slid his fingers into the braids so that I couldn’t work his hands free. There is something primally terrifying about hair-pulling, about not being able to move your head. Also, it hurts. I could feel my blood rising angrily to my face, my own gut lurching in a combination of fear and fury. By now, it was really too late for the toilet; the mess was all over his clothes and the floor and my shoes. Either no one heard me yelling towards the classroom down the hall over the usual bedlam, or everyone was occupied with one of the endless cascade of crises in the classroom and couldn’t come to help. I was panicky, full of helpless rage and disgust, and I raised my hand to slap Dwayne, maybe to startle him into letting go of one side of my head at least.

And right there, with my hand raised to strike him, in that sad, filthy stall, I had what I have always (a little abashedly) described to myself as a vision. For just a moment, I saw myself in a long hallway, with a tall, beautiful man wearing Dwayne’s (kind of goofy) glasses striding towards me. That was all–no words, no rush of tender emotion, just that one quick glimpse. I put my hand back on his arm, more gently, and took a deep breath. He let me pry one of his hands out of my hair, then the other, though not without pulling out a couple of fistfuls of my permed, Bon Jovi lookalike hair (a kindness, probably, to leave me with a little less of that mop!).

I cleaned us up, slowly, his resistance half-hearted now. When he was finally in clean pajamas, he let me pull the blanket over him and sit on his bed holding his hand for a minute before he curled up into the painful-looking snarl of limbs in which he always slept.

I didn’t sleep for a long while that night. I was deeply shaken, ashamed of my anger and disgust, and puzzled by the moment of grace that had rescued us. Over years, I’ve begun to understand this episode in light of Paul’s meditation on charity. I Corinthians 13 ends with what seems like an odd excursus about prophecy and vision and knowledge. Charity is, impossibly, both the prerequisite for and the consequence of vision. Paul warns that in this life, we will see “in a mirror, dimly.” Our vision of others is distorted, because we see them only through the refracted image of ourselves. We play at love, but perform it immaturely, childishly. Paul doesn’t really explain how being able to “know, even as we are known” is related to enduring charity. But in that moment of really seeing Dwayne, I started to understand that once we see each other, we love readily, even inevitably. And real love–Christ’s–comes, undeserved and even unbidden, as a gift of clear sight. Because charity is a gift of God, and not an act of will, it bears all things–even human contradiction; it can come to us even in anger, disgust, or fear, as the infant Christ came to a dark, forgotten corner to dwell among the beasts and his beastly and beloved human kin.

What surprised me then, and still does, about that smelly encounter is how utterly unsentimental it was, and how little it depended on my attempts at cultivating the sorts of feelings I sometimes mistake for an approximation of charity. I wish I could say that I was transformed by the experience, that I’ve developed the habit of seeing charitably. I haven’t. I’m still impatient and judgmental and wretchedly unkind, sometimes to the people I love most in the world–which says, I guess, all there is to say about how good I am at love, left to my own devices. This very unmystical vision startled me by its smallness, by its practicality. No angels singing (I choose to believe they were off in some corner of heaven rehearsing Duruflé motets), no nice testimony meeting lesson tied with a bow, no miraculous healing or dramatic climax. Only that one wordless, piercing moment of recognition, of meeting face to face.

If I could go back, I would sing this lullabye:

Love is little, love is low,
Love will make our spirit grow,
Grow in peace, grow in light,
Love will do the thing that’s right.

Comments

  1. I have a much higher tolerance for sentimentality as I’ve gotten older, I think from years of living this kind of gut-twisting, deep-breathing, foulness tolerance – not perfectly, but with that muddy grit of daily living that softens. Real charity is usually less romantic than faith-promoting stories, but it’s deeply faith-promoting. I really enjoyed this. Charity is a rich subject, deep and wide enough to tolerate a great many permutations of truth. It makes us all better from the inside out as we stretch where we’re tight, do more than we think we can, and qualify in those moments of the steadying deep breath for the vision that clarifies it all. Nice.

  2. Love.

  3. Kristine,
    You always find the perfect piece of music. Thanks.

  4. Kiar Shaw says:

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.
    I used to work at a nursing home, and one of our residents was a lady who had been a extremly talented scientist, who had had a series of strokes, and her brain was basically fried. She was loud and yelled a lot, and had to have rails up on her bed at all times, and had to be secured to her wheel chair. It was so sad and hard to see her like that, and I remember a time or two when I got very frustrated, trying to dress her, or change her, and in one particular instance I remember looking at her in anger, and she smiled at me, with this gorgeous grin from ear to eat. At that moment, I glimpsed a bit of who she must have been prior to her strokes, the vibrant lady in the pictures her daughter showed us. I think we are so much more then the shells we carry arounf here on earth. And sometimes we need to be reminded of those around us as well.

  5. Like Bonnie, the older I get, the more tolerance I have for sentimentality. For me, it has something to do with grandchildren. But we need these reminders that sentimental love is the narrowest kind. The genuine vision of the other person is rarely sentimental. Thanks, Kristine.

  6. Yes–the smallness of your moment of vision, from a God of small things, little moments, broken people, tiny decisions, quiet triumphs, weak and foolish servants, and simple realizations. It makes beautiful sense. Thanks for sharing this fine moment from your life, Kristine. Wonderfully and soulfully written, as always.

  7. Thank you, Kristine. Thank you.

  8. Sometimes the love is so profound, so ineffable, that our efforts to describe it also adumbrate Paul’s mirror dimly. Thank you, Kristine.

  9. Kristine, this was beautiful.

  10. Wow. What a week for the blog.

  11. Like it. Can’t compute yet. But I really like it.

  12. Mommie Dearest says:

    Reading the post made me get a lump in my throat, and tears. But it was a good cry, mostly happy. Except it makes me sad to see our discourse about love so often cloaked in warm fuzzy fluff, instead of, well…this stuff. Yes, sentimentality has its rightful place, but it’s not the real deal.

  13. Just right.

  14. Kristine, you inspire me to be a better person. Thank you!

  15. casteluzzo says:

    Wow, that was beautiful.

  16. Thanks

  17. This reminds me of some episodes I’ve lived as a parent. Probably most parents recognize moments when doing the loving thing meant simply cleaning up whatever effluvia and coping with whatever meltdown the loved one presented with. Caring for an aging parent, likewise. There is profound intimacy here, and hence love, but little to nothing of feel-good sentimentality. Sometimes love means simply doing the unpleasant thing that needs to be done as pleasantly as one can manage. The dying on the cross, and the hoisting the dead body down, cleaning it and covering it with dignity again.

  18. I learned a lot from this — thank you Kristine.

  19. This is sublimely beautiful Kristine. We sometimes have these interruptive grace-full experiences and we don’t seem to fundamentally alter our orientation to the world. We seem to be just as prone to our old, familiar, selfish ways. And yet that’s not totally true. These kinds of experiences insert cracks in our hearts that allow us, little by little, to extend and to feel love more easily. As our hearts break open our vision improves. So perfectly said. Thank you.

  20. Very nice, Kristine — thanks.

  21. A woman who used to live in our area was a special ed teacher in the district where I work now. I remember hearing about someone asking her how she was so successful with some of the most challenging students. Her response was simply that she reminds herself that each is a child of God and deserve to be treated that way.

    A colleague of mine (not LDS) provides Therapeutic Crisis Intervention training. She told me recently that the most important thing to do when in a crisis is to relax your muscles and take a deep breath. She made the simple but profound statement that you can’t get angry when you are relaxed. I don’t know if anyone can refute this or not, but I think it is true. Your post reminded me of that. Thanks for sharing it!

  22. This makes me think of a friend who is struggling with so many family issues, I am in awe of all she accomplishes, and how little people see what she does as amazing loving and full of grace. Her husband was injured at work, several years ago. He will never be able to do that work again, so his disability insurance paid for vocational training, but even after graduating he still only occasionally is able to find work in their small town. About the time of her husband’s injury the found out that a foster child that they had adopted had been molesting their other sons. All of them are dealing with the extreme emotional trauma from the abuse, on top of a variety of learning challenges they were born with. Just to make life interesting one of her sons had to have a tumor removed right before Christmas.

    I am constantly amazed at her ability to wake up every day knowing that life is not going to be any easier today, and it very well may be harder. I wish I lived closer so that I could give her a hug, sit down with her sons and read with them so that she can get a nap, or a shower, or whatever break she needs.

    She sees herself as someone who is always on the edge of losing herself to the overwhelming amount of emotional energy of serving her husband, her sons, and trying to carve out a few minutes to find out if she still has a testimony. She has dealt with a great deal of judgment from members of her ward, and I ache for all the tears she has shed trying to reconcile her testimony of the truthfullness of the gospel, and her present challenges, which includes trying to forgive herself and her ward and ward leaders for the spiritual stand off she feels herself caught up in.

    I have been through some of the emotions she feels, and certainly have had my share of disagreements with ward members or leaders, but my problems seem insignificant when I consider all that she struggles with. The other day while praying for her, and trying to figure out what I can do from 800+ miles away, I had this picture clearly come to my mind. I don’t think she will mind if I share it with you. My words don’t really convey the flash of insight, but it did convey how much the Lord loves her, even though He won’t magically fix her problems.

    “In my minds eye, I can see your family, holding on with one finger each to the iron rod. I can see the hot blasts of a sandstorm buffeting you and your children. I can see your husband struggling to lead your family and not fall under the weight as he takes the brunt of the storm. I see your children relying on both of you to lead them. I also see hundreds of angels from the other side singing to you as you go along. I see them lovingly wiping a tear, tying a shoelace, pulling a hair out your face, all in an effort to help you along so you need not let that delicate grip on the gospel go. I also see earthly angels, advancing towards your family with heavenly angels by their sides, directing them towards you. Some are fairly close to reaching you, and others are off in the far distance. They will reach you at different times and in different ways, but the Lord knows what you need now, and he knows what you will need in twenty years, and He is preparing his earthly messengers to find you at those times, and to give you those things that He has prepared for you. Some of those people heading towards you will have only brief contacts, but they will help you change directions when it is most important. Others will walk along aside you for years, decades and into the eternities. All of them have been called to serve you and your family, and are preparing to answer that call when it comes. ”

    In that flash of insight I didn’t suddenly have an answer to give her that was more than my love and my testimony of Heavenly Father’s love. I don’t think that sharing what I saw in my minds eye will solve her problems dealing with her ward, her husbands unemployment, her sons’ challenges or the copious amount of tears she sheds. As her friend, my own limitations of health, money and the needs of my own children, I can’t simply go and be another mother to her family. There is no Hallmark ending now, and I am not sure there will be in this lifetime. But, none of us are promised an easy life, free of pain. In fact, no matter where our pain and suffering comes from, it is part of mortality.

    Thank you for such a clear example of how different the Lord sees us compared to how we see ourselves and others. I wish I could say that I can see my life as clearly as I could hers, for just that second. I still find that the anxiety that I have always struggled with is there. I look at those around me and feel spiritually inferior because I struggle to understand myself and why I “seem” to be less capable than those around me. I yell, I cry, I hurt, I do things I know I will regret later, I go for a month without reading my scriptures, I forget to tell my husband I love him. I could go on forever with all the reasons I really belong in the telestial kingdom.

    I am so grateful to know that maybe Christ sees me as Kristine saw Dwayne. At least I hope there is part of me that is more than I see when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

  23. Wow. Thank you for sharing this, words and music.

  24. A beautiful piece, Kristine. Thank you.

  25. This is one I’ll want to review periodically. Thank you, Kristine.

  26. And Heather Marx wonders why I think you’re so amazing. Thank you for sharing Kristine.

  27. Kristine, this is a beautiful story. A great week+ for BCC. This story is different though–you were able to have true charity for this boy and he was not a relative of yours. Very interesting. I believe (hope) that I would have obeyed such a prompting from the spirit, but to be honest, I probably would have hauled off and smacked him. Maybe not in the face, but something to get his attention. I am glad you showed the restraint that I cannot, and it gave me a greater appreciation for those who can assist difficult cases and ultimately not lose their cool.

  28. lesmblake says:

    Thank you so much for writing this small piece of perfection.

  29. Mark Brown says:

    For me, the breakthrough moment — call it a vision — came when I looked at my own face in the morror and realized that I was Dwayne. I am broken, helpless and needy, full of annoying and repellant behaviors, and often a disgusting person. In Benjamin’s words, lower than the dust of the earth.

    It was only when I realized that I was completely underserving of the abundance of grace and love all around me, that God loved me in spite of me, that I began to get a faint glimpse of what charity might mean.

  30. Liz Johnson says:

    This is so beautiful. I especially love the bit about the workers who go back, day after day, with no appreciation or recognition of their efforts. I want to be like them some day.

  31. I’m really glad you took the time to write this, Kristine. I needed that change of perspective right now. My kids are appreciative too — they just don’t know it.

  32. Kim S Colton says:

    Thank you. Mark Brown succinctly stated my response: God loves us in spite of us and loves us especially in the middle of mortal messiness. Visions of each other filled with that love allow us to look in each other in the face and to see beyond the part we know to the whole we will love.

  33. Thank you, Kristine.

  34. Kristine says:

    Martin–my kids, too. In fact, I suspect this memory got pulled up for the sake of my 15-year-old, who does ok in the bathroom but finds other ways to push me to the absolute edge of my capacity for patience and longsuffering :)

    And thanks, everyone, for your kind words.

  35. Thank you for sharing this experience and your vision. This has touched me deeply.

  36. wreddyornot says:

    Very, very insightful and tender. Thanks.

  37. Beautiful, Kristine.

    I also have had moments of piercing clarity in which I saw others as God sees them, but I also have not been able to keep that vision toward all. However, knowing I see through my glass, darkly, has been a light to my soul – so I am grateful for those flashes of pure sight whenever they come, graciously unbidden.

  38. Thank you for sharing. My wife and I went through an experience recently with a friend with difficulties, who ultimately banished us from her life, and vanished out of state due to disabling paranoia and schizophrenic behavior. We were heartbroken, but it has helped us both better understand about trying to see others as God knows and sees them, and to understand how broken and imperfect we are ourselves, repeatedly sinning and not doing the things we know we should do.

    And God loves us still.

  39. charlene says:

    Thank you, Kristine, for this exquisitely written piece. I too have seen a vision of the mature spirit of my Dwayne-like son. I often feel his strong angel arm bearing me up as much as I supported his frail body. I hope I will recognize Jesus as easily as I will recognize my mature son. Now, with your gospel interpretation, I’ll have to stretch beyond my gratitude for his support and try to see the mature spirit of others that I still encounter in this life.

  40. Morris Thurston says:

    Thank you, Kristine! Beautifully said. A lovely melody — and is that you in the choir, back row, far right?

  41. Kristine says:

    Thanks, Morris. No, it’s not me–must be a Doppelgänger.

  42. I can’t get this piece or the images of its souls out of my mind, perhaps because my life is about people with ugly struggles. Still, I want to sound a note of kindness for the young Kristine, perhaps a bit self-righteous, but didn’t she have to naturally move through that period of practice to play with more depth? I, too, avoid the cynical servants because it doesn’t work for me, though I recognize their courage that they come back every day. I also think the naively snobbish and prim need hugs too. If you get a chance to go back, don’t slap her face. She was just a kid.

  43. AlisonH says:

    Such moments are rare, intensely personal, pivotal, and so seldom shared with others. Thank you for putting it out there.

  44. dankrist says:

    Lovely.

  45. Wow, Kristine. This is incredibly beautiful. You’re so gifted–both in having and communicating such powerful insights.

  46. Thank you.
    Beautiful music.

  47. themormonbrit says:

    Thank you so much. This was beautiful.

  48. Kristiina says:

    I love the portrait you draw of two kinds of love — the “gritty love” of the workers who show up every day but make cynical jokes the whole time, and the gentle and peaceful love of seeing through God’s eyes. How many Mother’s Day talks have I cringed through as they spoke only of the sweet moments, and ignored all the filth and hair-pulling and loss of control that often precede the lullabies? Thank you, Kristine, for honoring both kinds of love.

  49. I spent some time after college working at a state psychiatric hospital, and this piece rang very true to me. Working closely with a population so ravaged by life taught me a lot about looking beyond a person’s external actions and instead valuing the person they are and will be someday. That made it slightly easier when I had to do things like help a nearly immobile and completely uncommunicative man twice my size onto the commode, and a million other things/

  50. God bless, Kristine and everyone who commented. This is an edifying little thing.

  51. I had a breakthrough moment that was similar in some ways but also a contrast to the experience Mark describes (#29, though I think I’ve had similar moments that I also count as illuminating), when it suddenly occurred to me that life is beautiful not because of what it can become, but simply because of what it is, as it becomes. We each contribute in a unique way to the complicated beauty that is our universe. I think a truly charitable God would love us not only for our potential, but for our mere existence, for the fact that we have unique desires–not despite our imperfections, but simply because we *are*.

  52. Thank you. I cried reading your piece and again reading the comments. Rarely do I have that blessing. Thank you.

  53. Kristine, Thank you for sharing such a soul baring story. I have had similar incidences, minus the happy ending. The visions of my children and their greatness have come to me in other moments but never at the time of my intense anger. Thank you for reminding me of those times….

  54. Purple Turtle says:

    I needed some grace today–thank you. My little one was recently diagnosed with autism, and I feel incredibly deficient as I am learning to help him and deal with his challenging behaviors. Thank you for reminding me that God loves me in my brokenness, and that my awkward, struggling attempts to help my son show love too.

  55. I’ve never commented before today, but now I have no choice. Thank you, Kristine.

  56. Kristine says:

    Thanks, Ben–what a kind thing to say.

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