Lord, Teach Us to Be Vulnerable
BY Jim Cosgrove
March 23-29, 1997 Issue | Posted 3/23/97 at 2:00 PM
IT WASN'T PLANNED, but, in hindsight, the juxtaposition in this issue of coverage of the cloning controversy with the moving testimony of Mary Jane Owen, advocate for the mentally and physically handicapped, makes perfect sense. Surely, were the routine cloning of human beings ever to become a reality, those unlucky souls with mental and/or bodily flaws would never make it past stage one. The “creators,” like assembly-line inspectors at a pastry factory, would simply discard the beginnings of imperfect life and start over.
The world's first and second cloned mammals sparked such a spate of commentary in both the secular and religious press-much of it rather obvious and knee-jerk-that little more can be added without sounding repetitive. In summary, however, it seems fair to say that human cloning would make life a lot less messy: For one thing, we'd all be perfect, at least on the outside; what's more, people wouldn't have to have sex anymore to raise children who are their genetic offspring.
Now, in the appropriate context, sex, in the eyes of the Church, is something of great beauty; a bodily expression of authentic love, a pouring out of self. It is the ultimate act of intimacy. The key disposition required: being vulnerable-literally and figuratively, naked before the beloved, stripped of all our defenses. No technology, however advanced, could ever thus dispose us. Decidedly non-genetically coded intangibles like willingness and courage are required.
In this regard, Ms. Owen is a supreme teacher. Twenty years ago, as she and her fellow activists laid siege to a government building to insist the handicapped be treated fairly, Owen was pressed into service helping a quadriplegic man get dressed and undressed each morning and night for more than three weeks: “At first it seemed odd to touch this stranger in such personal and intimate ways. Then suddenly it became both essential and natural. It reminded me of Jesus washing his friends'feet. It became a privilege to be so trusted.”
”We will create a culture of love when we eliminate the fear of vulnerability,” she says. Astranger got out of his car to come to her aid as she lay helpless in the road. He unburdened himself, speaking of his fears about unemployment and his acute depression. “You see,” says Owen, “he felt he could talk to me because I was vulnerable…. [A] connection was made because of my vulnerability, because of my disability, because he could help me-and that made him feel more human.”
Modeled on Christ's ultimate surrender on Good Friday, our own vulnerability-as well as its embrace in others and especially, most powerfully, in the one we love-is a condition for living life to the fullest, for becoming more authentically human. And that humanness can never be cloned. Of course, letting our guard down is scary; it means risking rejection and abandonment. It breaches the false security of, as Owen put it, thinking of ourselves “as autonomous and independent and self-sufficient.” But the alternative, a kind of living death, a numbness, is far scarier still.
Irving Kristol, writing in The Wall Street Journal recently, described the modern welfare state, guarantor of the tedium of risk-averse “cradle-to-grave” middle-class security, in terms that also capture the typical ‘autonomous’ individual: “The fully developed welfare state is a modern version of the feudal castle, guarded by moats and barriers, and offering security and shelter to the loyal population that gathers around it.” He or she might even be married, the couple living an egoisme a deux, and even have a family, its interests narrowly defined and jealously guarded.
Forget cloning: A truly Orwellian move toward ensuring the ever greater invulnerability of this illusion of comfort and security was reported on by The New York Times earlier this month in a story highlighting the “booming corrections industry”: A Cleveland-based company developed so-called “stun belts.” The devices allow a guard from a distance of up to 300 feet away to deliver an eight-second 50,000 volt jolt to a prisoner attempting to flee a work-site. The belts replace shackles and would require fewer guards to watch inmates. The would-be escapees are stunned for ten minutes and “also lose control of their bladder and bowels.”
The handicapped are blessed in a particular way, though their election comes at a stiff mental or physical price. For them, there is no illusion of security. They cannot help relying on their fellow men and women; and they cannot find comfort and peace until they accept that. Their fundamental dependence on others is concretely made manifest. Most “normal people,” by contrast, looking good on the outside and believing themselves self-sufficient, manage to slide through life without ever making that vital, life-giving connection with others. Youth, wealth, beauty and safety are their obsession-at their peril.
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