“A dam is a 25-year-old man who cannot speak, cannot dress or undress himself, cannot walk alone, cannot eat without much help. He does not cry or laugh. Only occasionally does he make eye contact. His back is distorted. His arm and leg movements are twisted. He suffers from severe epilepsy and, despite heavy medication, sees few days without grand-mal seizures. Sometimes, as he grows suddenly rigid, he utters a howling groan. On a few occasions, I’ve seen one big tear roll down his cheek.

“It takes me about an hour and a half to wake Adam up, give him his medication, carry him into his bath, wash him, shave him, clean his teeth, dress him, walk him to the kitchen, give him his breakfast, put him in his wheelchair and bring him to the place where he spends most of the day with therapeutic exercises.”

Three years ago, author Henri Nouwen moved from his post at Harvard University to a community called Daybreak, near Toronto. There he took on the daily, mundane chores related above: a ministry not to intellectuals, but to a young man who is considered by many a vegetable, a useless person who should not have been born. Yet in a recent article in World Vision magazine, Nouwen insisted that he, not Adam, is the chief beneficiary in this strange, misfitted relationship.

From the hours spent with Adam, Nouwen says, he has gained an inner peace so fulfilling that it makes most of his other, more high-minded tasks seem boring and superficial by contrast. As he sat beside that silent, slow-breathing child-man, he realized how violent and marked with rivalry and competition, how pervaded with obsession, was his prior drive toward success in academia and in the Christian ministry.

From Adam he learned that “what makes us human is not our ...

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