As I was preparing to board a plane for our annual Thanksgiving trip to visit family, I couldn't help but be struck by the irony of two headlines that dominated the news. The first story was about Pope Francis, who recently held a gathering with children who have Autism Spectrum Disorders. The second involved reporting about the brief and tortured life of Adam Lanza, the young man responsible for the Newtown School shooting. While I was midstream on a blog about gratitude and Thanksgiving--a feel-good piece decorated with literary hearts and flowers, these two headlines caused me to take a detour in my writing. The love and compassion in the news of the Pope, juxtaposed with the ignorance and judgment in the Adam Lanza case, jolted me into feeling and thinking on a more profound level as we launch into this holiday week.
The images of the Pope embracing the children who were at the Vatican with 7,000 people were breathtaking. Many of the children in the crowd were looking away or anxious about human contact. I couldn't help but liken this vision of hope and compassion flowing from the Pope to the loving and maternal way that Nancy Lanza probably kept looking at her son as she tried desperately for many years to reach his soul while he drifted away. At this public gathering, the Pope urged governments and institutions to respond to the needs of people with autism to help break "the isolation and, in many cases, also the stigma" associated with the disorders, which are characterized by varying levels of social impairment and communication difficulties.
What a different world it could have been if we were able to heed the Pope's call to action before tragedies like Newtown and stop isolating and discriminating against those who have all types of brain differences. How were Adam Lanza and his family supposed to find support in a society suffused with judgment and rejection, in a nation where our mental health and educational systems are ill-equipped to treat and educate people with these brain based challenges?
As we head into this season of love and light, perhaps we can attempt to expand our hearts and compassion by being grateful for one (or more) of these gifts that Nancy and Peter Lanza were robbed of as parents to a child with profound medical issues that our mental health/educational system remains unable to adequately address. One thing I'm sure of is that whatever judgment the media or general public make about what parents or others should have done, Pope Francis understands that a society that lives by its faith and values would embrace rather than judge.
So this Thanksgiving, our challenge is to transform gratitude into action by taking meaningful steps in creating caring communities in a society that offers inclusivity for all.
that our children might have a friend or two who share activities that are healthy and fun
that we can access medical care for our loved ones
that our children can attend school safely and well nourished
that our friends and family can take the medication they need
that we are able to watch our children graduate from high school or college and make their way onward in life
that we live in homes that feel safe where we don't fear for our own lives or the lives of our family members because of their underlying medical conditions
that we can sit down with friends and/or family and have a Thanksgiving celebration and can savor the precious gift of counting our many blessings.
For these seemingly basic things, we can be grateful and we can take action: we can remind ourselves of the far too many families among us who, like the Lanzas, lacked these basics -- and of a nation that pays such a terrible price for our collective failure to provide for them.