Monday, January 31, 2011
Book Review: The Power of the Powerless
Ever since I met Raymond Washington at our Salvation Army Corps in Chicago, I have wanted to write about him. As a teenager, the experience of meeting Raymond was comical. We arrived, a new family of officers for the corps there, and all five of us children sat on the front row during our welcome service. At the end of the service, Raymond approached to greet us. He was decked out in his Army uniform, his hair slicked back with grease, his sweaty palm extended. He went down the row, introducing himself and bidding us welcome individually. Almost fifty times in all we heard, "Hello, I'm Raymond. Glad you're here. Hello, I'm Raymond. Glad you're here." Down the row he went, again and again.
I have so many Raymond stories. The times my family would return to our house next door to begin lunch preparations after church and I would stay behind waiting for Raymond to finally finish reading the bulletin board and be ready to head out the door so that I could lock the building. The time Raymond left one of the corps' big brass baritones on a Chicago bus accidentally (sounds like something I'd do these days). The time, after we had already moved away, when my older brother lightheartedly informed me that Raymond provided the special music in the form of an organ solo and played the founder's song, "Oh Boundless Salvation," ... all seven verses.
His story is so sad (his perfect pitch remained despite a severe beating by a gang of thugs outside North Park College many years ago) and yet it is a story ripe with possibilities and lessons and genuine lovely character. That is why I wanted to write about him. I mentioned this to an editor at a Write-to-Publish Conference in Wheaton, Illinois, and that editor told me I should read Christopher de Vinck's The Power of the Powerless. It was that very day, that I came across and purchased Compelled to Write to You (a book of correspondence between Christopher de Vinck and a student, Liz Mosbo VerHage - a North Park student, no less - regarding her experience and reaction to The Power of the Powerless, reviewed here).
This is a powerful book because it tells a story that is strong and true, one that taps into our deep need to open ourselves up to the things in life that perplex and confound us. It is the story of Christopher de Vinck's experience growing up with a brother who would never walk on his own, feed himself, speak clearly or learn anything. The book itself grew from the overwhelming response people communicated to Christopher de Vinck for his article, of the same name, published in The Wall Street Journal back in 1985. So many individuals identified with the lessons learned from the powerless life of Oliver.
As Henri J. M. Nouwen observes in his introduction to this book, "He writes about four very handicapped people, people who suffered from several physical and mental deformations, people who by many are considered ... tragic flaws of nature, people about whom many feel that it would have been better if they had not been born. But for Chris these people are God's messengers, they are the divine instruments of God's healing presence, they are the ones who bring truth to a society full of lies, light into the darkness and life into a death-oriented world. Everything this book reveals seems contrary to common sense. How can a young man who cannot see, walk, talk, feed himself or communicate in any way and who is on his back in his bed until he dies at the age of thirty - how can such a person be the most life-giving presence in the family?"
There is great power in being powerless, in admitting to powerlessness, in serving the powerless, in embracing the powerless. As de Vinck's title conveys, it is a rich dichotomy where the weak things confound the strong and speak volumes without uttering a single word.
I sometimes think to myself, "Why didn't God bless me with a child with Down's Syndrome? I have the heart to love such a child. I can see the blessing their very being would bring. Why did God give me normal, healthy children?"
And yet, I can apply Christopher de Vinck's message to other parts of my life ... other areas of challenge. There are plenty of instances of powerlessness in my life. If I look at these with the eyes of the story of Christopher's brother, Oliver, I can remember that there is a power in powerlessness. The areas where my life seems lacking or more challenging than I would like ... those are blessings akin to an Oliver.
The key is in recognizing the suffering ... the powerlessness ... as blessing. We are so often deceived by the ideals of a life without struggle. We are seduced by the image of a picture perfect life. But reality seems to prove that the very imperfections and trials we may wish to avoid, are the things that reap rich rewards in our lives. Struggle, suffering, dredging up every day the energy to merely go on existing, those are gardens that bring forth deeper meaning than perfection. It is hard work to tend those gardens, but they produce things of rare beauty often watered by tears that cost us dearly. Just as powerless individuals change (stretch and grow) every family where God grants their presence, situations of powerlessness can change an individual.
Although I don't have an Oliver in my life (more's the pity), this book has reminded me to embrace the moments that don't make sense, the struggles that seem too difficult to bear, the health issues that perplex. He has given me the power to embrace my own powerlessness and to thank God for the blessings in whatever form they arrive.
Personally, I was deeply ministered to by the words of Christopher's mother as she explained coming to terms with her role as Oliver's mother. It spoke to the burdens I presently carry. She wrote:
"I could not see the purpose of this trial, but I could say yes to God. I could begin to learn about trust, could begin to realize that God's ways are not our ways.
"For many, many years, I was confined to the house, alone and without the support of relatives or friends. Jose was at work all day and I was with Oliver and the other five children. This enforced seclusion was difficult for me; I had a restless, seeking spirit. Through Oliver, I was held still. I was forced to embrace silence and a solitude where I could 'prepare the way of the Lord.' Sorrow opened my heart, and I 'died.' I underwent this 'death' unaware that it was a trial by fire from which I would rise renewed - more powerfully, more consciously alive.
"I looked into the abyss of human sorrow and saw how dangerous and how easy it is to slide into self-pity - to weep over one's fate. I was given the grace to understand that one has to be on guard against such grieving, for it falsifies one's grasp on life and erodes one's inner strength. Sorrow can be worn as a badge of honor ('See how I suffer!'). It can also be a searing experience. It is not exalting to be alone all day in a house full of small children, to be faced with the same daily chores, with a routine of physical work which appears to narrow one's life to trivial concerns. Many women who are 'just housewives' experience this sense of futility, this feeling of being cut off from the mainstream of life.
"But if there is a silence that is opaque and a solitude that is a prison, there is also a silence that is luminous and a solitude that is blessed terrain where the seeds of prayer can grow."
I needed to read this book, for that very passage alone. I so deeply want to avoid that self-pity trap and to recognize the luminous, blessed terrain, even when the days are long and hard and I feel the isolation will kill me. I want to give up my powerlessness to God, so that He may render it powerful in some way that I cannot see.
Thus, this book isn't merely for people who have an Oliver in their lives. This book is for anyone who wishes to slough off society's persistent drive for usefulness and productivity. It is for the person who wonders what purpose their life holds. It is for the person who rages against unfair treatment for their autistic or disabled child. It is for the individual who can embrace the upside down kingdom where "God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." (1Cor. 1:27)