Both “saints and sinners” can have mentally retarded children; the problem is to achieve acceptance along with understanding

The saddest of all cries is that of a mother tenderly holding her retarded child and asking, “Why?” A cry of hunger can be satisfied with food, a cry of poverty alleviated with money, a cry of pain soothed with medicine, a cry of loneliness silenced with companionship; but a cry from a parent of a retarded child is a cry of futility for which there is no easy solace.

We who are parents of normal children cannot understand how the parents of a mentally retarded child feel. While we are nagging our children to get higher grades, they are hoping their child will learn to dress himself. While we are concerned about getting our children into college, they are delighted when their child can give a correct answer to two plus two. While we are looking forward to our children’s entrance into business or professional life, they are pleading for their child to be given an unskilled job opportunity.

Daily we thank God for blessing us with normal children and interpret this blessing as an act of God’s love. But how can a parent of a mentally retarded child believe that God is loving?

Recently, the mother of a child who is not only mentally retarded but also deaf and dumb confided to me the heartaches surrounding her beautiful child. Seeking answers, she had gone to her clergyman, who told her, “God had so much love to give you that he blessed you with this child.” I asked her how she reacted to his statement. This was her answer: “I simply said to him, ‘I wish God had distributed this love a little more evenly. Why did I have to have such a big chunk of it?’ ”

Why do some clergymen feel that they must always say something, even though there may be nothing to say? Many times a warm handclasp is more than sufficient and a gentle nod of the head more expressive than many words.

For counseling parents of retardates, a clergyman needs great understanding. And in listening one finds understanding. In the New York Times (Jan. 4, 1959), Dr. Howard S. Rusk cited a transcription of an interview with a twelve-year-old boy, blind since birth, who was having difficulty at school because he was said to be “out of touch with reality.”

But then it isn’t the darkness that I should blame. Because darkness can be either friend or enemy. If wishes could come true, I’d wish I could see. But if I only had one wish, I would not waste it on wishing I could see. I’d wish instead that everybody could understand one another and how a person feels inside.
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What the parents of a mentally retarded child need is acceptance along with understanding. Somehow, they must learn to accept their special problem. They might never learn to understand fully why they were given it, but to survive they must learn to accept it. To achieve this requires skill, patience, understanding, prayer, and guidance on the part of the counselor.

Parents of a mentally retarded child often have a feeling of guilt. They think that somewhere in the past, either remembered or unremembered, there was a transgression that God is now punishing them for. They must be ever so gently led to see that God is not vindictive and that the birth of a mentally retarded child is something that could and does happen to both sinner and saint. Before acceptance can be reached, the sense of guilt must be removed.

Recently I buried a severely brain damaged infant. Later the mother wrote me saying: “There were many times that I felt a sense of security in the knowledge of the fact that you did possess a ‘special love’ for all of our children. And now God has seen fit to take her unto himself and make her perfect in mind and body. For this we are grateful even in the sense of loss.”

This mother had learned to accept her problem. Her secret was that she did not allow self-pity to engulf her. Like Job when he said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him,” she held fast her faith in God.

Quite different is the mother who wrote this letter to the editor of the New York Daily News (Jan. 24, 1965):

As the mother of a mentally retarded child, I agree with you, they shouldn’t be allowed entry to this country from abroad. Not only would the country end up paying for their care, they’re potentially dangerous. I could write about my child; the things he’s done and the strength he had in him at the age of four. As adults, the strength and viciousness of the retardeds is even worse. Sorry, but we’ve enough mentally retarded adults in this country without the imported variety.

In more than seven years as resident chaplain in a state institution with over 4,300 mentally retarded patients, I have yet to find a child of four who is potentially dangerous or an adult who is vicious. The retardate is no more dangerous or vicious than the normal person. Yet without proper training and discipline he can become a delinquent, as can also the normal child.

Mental retardation is an enigma. How can we reconcile Genesis 1:31 (“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”) with the tears of a mentally retarded child who has just been called a “dope” by a brighter child of the same Creator? Why should so much intelligence be bestowed upon one and so little on the other?

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Various theories have been put forth in an attempt to reconcile the perfection of God with the imperfections of mental retardation. All of them have one thing in common; they are merely rationalizations.

One theory may be called “The Other Side of the Rug.” Look at a beautiful, valuable rug with an intricate pattern. Turn it over and you will notice the roughness of the underside. The rougher the underside, with its ugly knots and scraggly ends, the finer the finished side. Needless to say, proponents of this theory consider the retardate to be the side devoid of beauty and pattern, a bothersome necessity.

Another theory may be called “The Garden.” When compared to a weed, a flower is full of beauty and fragrance. Just as we need sorrow to appreciate joy and darkness to enjoy light, the weed is necessary to show the flower in all its splendor. The mentally retarded child has value as a foil for the normal child.

Still another theory is that of “The Sins of Our Fathers.” This rests on a misunderstanding of Numbers 14:18: “The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation.” The “iniquity of fathers” has been thoughtlessly identified by many amateur biblical interpreters as syphilis. I am reminded of four young men from a conservative Bible college who came to visit the institution. Briefing them on mental retardation, I was informed by the four that all mental retardation was caused by this disease.

Would God that mental retardation were so simple it could be explained with one word! The truth of the matter is that syphilis accounts for only a very small percentage of mental retardation. If it were the sole cause, then by successfully attacking this disease we could eliminate retardation. But to date there are some seventy known or suspected diseases or mishaps causing mental retardation. In only one out of five cases can we identify the cause with any certainty.

Traditional Christianity has taught that God is responsible for all creation and that everything he created has a purpose. Even the mentally retarded were brought into existence by the Creator and should not be considered a curse; the all-wise Creator has a purpose for even the “least of these.” The soul of a mentally retarded child is just as precious as that of a normal person; both were made in the image of God, the only difference being the degree of intelligence.

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As created beings with souls, we are pilgrims on our way to heaven. The greater the intelligence, the greater the responsibility. The retarded child, because he will never arrive at the age of responsibility, is blessed by being assured a place in heaven.

A purpose God might have for the mentally retarded is that of being our teachers. As a result of my work as chaplain to retardates, I shall forever be indebted to them. They have taught me more than I can ever tell through their childlike simplicity, their cunning candor, their yearning for affection, their unstinting love. Theirs is a world where hypocrisy is banished, a Never-Never Land where honesty reigns, where a smile is their passport to affection and the light in their eyes melts the coldest heart. Perhaps God is reminding us that we must rediscover these attributes that the mentally retarded have never lost.

Each morning upon arriving at my office, I pray that I shall find some small answer to one of the many questions of mental retardation. And each day I am disappointingly met with further questions. But, thank God, the answers are beginning to appear. Today research in mental retardation is like a train emerging from a long dark tunnel. Cretinism is now a page of past history; the RH factor has been curbed; the phenylketonuric (PKU baby) condition is now controllable. The admonition of our Saviour is valid for this area: “Ask and it will be given to you. Search and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you. The one who asks will always receive; the one who is searching will always find, and the door is opened to the man who knocks” (Matt. 7:7, 8, Phillips).

However, many parents of mentally retarded children are well acquainted with these verses. Never can it be said that they have not asked, searched, and knocked. They have asked countless doctors what can be done; they have searched for the one specialist who might by some miracle have the right answer; they have knocked on the doors of many medical centers. So much time consumed, so much money spent—only to be told there is absolutely no cure for their children.

More than seven years’ experience as a resident chaplain to retardates gives me the right to express certain opinions. They are as follows:

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As we learn more and more about mental retardation, less blame will be given God and more will be placed where it belongs, upon man’s limited knowledge. We now know that some babies are born mentally retarded because the mother contracted German measles during a critical period of pregnancy. Unfortunately, many babies were born retarded before we discovered this fact. Man must plead guilty because of his limited knowledge.

We still remember well the scare that thalidomide gave our nation. This drug should never have been released to the public until exhaustive tests had been made to assure safety. The drug companies released it prematurely. Who is to blame for all the malformed babies caused by this terrible drug? Surely not God.

Perhaps some types of mental retardation can be explained as a result of man’s breaking of natural and physical laws. God must have certain laws and rules if this world is to be carried on in an orderly manner. If I chose to step off a high ladder in defiance of the law of gravity, I could very easily receive a brain injury that would leave me handicapped. Have I the right to blame God for not suspending this law when I was falling?

The mentally retarded are not asking for much. All they want is a chance to grow and develop within their own limitations, a chance to be useful, a chance to love and to be loved, and a chance to know God as we have had a chance to know him. As Helen MacMurchy has said in The Almosts:

Give them a chance. The Golden Rule applies to them. We are to do for them what we would others should do for us. Give them justice and a fair chance. Do not throw them into a world where the scales arc weighted against them. Do not ask them to gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles. But give them one chance to bring out the best that is in them. This is but a fair request on behalf of human beings who nevertheless are permanent children.

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