My brother can’t cry. He can laugh — he loves to laugh! — and he can get angry and even sorrowful. But he can’t cry. At least, I’ve never seen him cry. My brother has Asperger syndrome, a disorder that is within the autism spectrum. It makes him a bewildering combination of ultra-high and ultra-low functioning. In some areas he is off the charts — memory, for example; seemingly without effort he can memorize huge lists of information and file them away forever. In other areas he barely registers at all; athletic ability and physical coordination are pretty much non-existent. And, as with most people who suffer from Asperger, he has near-paralyzing social handicaps.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, Asperger syndrome is marked by “socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior and the inability to interact successfully with peers” and “problems with non-verbal communication, including the restricted use of gestures, limited or inappropriate facial expressions, or a peculiar, stiff gaze.” Practically, this means that my brother has a difficult time formulating his thoughts and an even more difficult time expressing them. Conversation is marked by long and awkward pauses. Only in the rarest of situations will he really open up and speak with any kind of freedom.
This doesn’t mean that he is dumb. In fact, he is very intelligent in many ways and, when given opportunity, quite articulate. In a social situation he can barely express himself at all; with a pen and paper his words and thoughts usually flow freely.
My brother lives on his own. Through a remarkable combination of grace and opportunity, he has been able to find a job that provides enough hours and a high enough wage that he can afford an apartment. The job is subsidized and designed specifically for a person with a disability, but it is a job and one that is a near perfect fit for him. And with family living nearby, able and willing to help him with those areas of life in which he is unable to care for himself, he can live very nearly independently. This has long been his desire.
While his independence displays his strengths, it also displays some of the areas in which his disability truly is a handicap. With his social difficulties comes an inability to make friends. With his low function comes the inability to provide for a family and, thus, to attract a wife. With the lack of friends and the lack of companionship comes an aching loneliness. He is the loneliest person I know.
When I look at people with disabilities, I can sometimes see God magnifying the abilities of His creatures. When you see a savant’s ability with numbers, I think you see a glimpse of what the human brain is capable of — and perhaps what we will all be capable of when our bodies are perfected in the new earth. But when I look at people with disabilities, I also see that they bear a particular burden of the effects of the fall. We are all affected by man’s fall into sin, and it has affected our bodies, our minds, our souls. But in many ways those with disabilities carry an even heavier weight.
My brother carries the burden of loneliness — desperate, aching loneliness, the kind that offers no real hope of improvement or resolution. He cannot cry — his disability has disabled this expression of grief. But he grieves all the same, grieving through the few words he can speak, words of despair, spoken with as much emotion as he can muster: “I get so lonely here. Will I be alone forever?” You and I could form these words in an instant and speak them without a thought. Or maybe we would not say the words at all. Instead, we would cry; we would weep for what we longed for but couldn’t have. For my brother these words are pondered, mulled over and spoken from the deepest depths. These are his tears, running from his eyes, spilling down his cheeks. These are the tears he cannot cry.
My brother is a Christian. I have no doubt of it. Though his body and mind function very differently from mine, though I cannot imagine exactly how he thinks about God or how he relates to Him, I know that he has come to depend upon Him. He has placed his faith in Jesus Christ. I sometimes imagine what it will be like to meet my brother in heaven, when he has been freed from the effects of sin. It will be like meeting him for the first time, seeing who he really is without the social paralysis that defines him today.
But what of today? If my brother lives to a good old age he will have many decades left before the Lord calls him home. What hope is there for him in the meantime?
If there is any hope at all, it must be grounded in the Gospel. The Gospel calls us to live before the Lord not as individuals but as a family — a family that has been adopted by the Father because of the work of Jesus Christ. The Gospel calls us to be a family that loves and accepts one another despite our differences and, in reality, because of our differences. In doing this we point to the supernatural reality of what Christ has done in binding us all together. The things that by rights ought to push us apart should really pull us together — things like disability and social inability. If there is an answer to my brother’s loneliness, it must be the church. He has a family who loves him, but we cannot be all things to him. The church can be much more. While his family is just a few people, the church is a multitude.
It is the church that offers hope. It is Christians who see the hand of God in the man and who see that marred image and know that someday God will bring restoration. And it is they who can give glimpses of this restoration while offering a foretaste of it here on earth.
Copyright 2012 Zach Bradford. All rights reserved.