Like many men and women of my generation, I grew up nurturing my funny bone on the brilliant comedy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which in pre-cable television times aired late weekend nights mostly on public TV channels. I remember one routine in particular: “Interesting People” a sketch that featured an ingratiating and oily talk show host, played by Michael Palin. Guests on this particular episode of “Interesting People” included a boringly dressed man who speaks only in a monotone, droning voice (played by Eric Idle) who claims he is totally invisible. That’s right. Invisible.
In the sketch, as his very visible guest speaks, Michael Palin’s character begins to fidget nervously, realizing that he’s invited the most boring man ever on a program entitled “Interesting People.” Panicked, Palin tries to bring on the next guest, but Eric Idle lingers on, boringly, plodding, tone unchanged, and thereby, he becomes invisible, in that, eventually, no one sees him or notices him any more: not the talk show host, the studio audience, nor the viewers. He’s disappeared. Only a droning voice now, having become invisible to the camera eye, as well.
You may think this is only a skit from one of the most popular British comedies of all time, however, I have seen it with my own eyes, more than once, on many, many occasions, because my son, too, is invisible. You see, my son’s a great guy, a really sharp young man who happens to have Down syndrome.
Those of you who know our son, Jonathan, may object because you do see him: when he acolytes at church; when he bobs and weaves while walking with us, big smiling face as he walks; whenever we go out and about with him. But for much of his life it is as if he is invisible because few people—if any—interact with him for any length of time, for anything more than polite pleasantries.
True, when people greet Jonathan he usually says “hello” back—and usually it ends right there. After that, not too much conversation with him takes place. He sits or stands with us, near us, wherever we may go. But few people actually converse with him spontaneously as they would you or me. Not enough people, anyway.
Of course, it’s his fault. I mean, he doesn’t speak clearly enough to be heard or understood, really, and it’s his fault because he doesn’t make much of an effort, either, because he can’t help it. He cannot easily talk. It’s tempting to say: “You’ve got to speak up if you want to be heard, to be noticed, to make friends. A person’s got to put themselves out there to make a mark, make a name for themselves.”
But what if that’s exactly what you cannot do because of a disability? Many, many people with Down syndrome are talkative, out-going, and Down-right funny—pun fully intended. I personally know two young men with Down syndrome who could talk your ears off if you get them started, and you’d enjoy having that conversation for all the ground you would cover. Some people, however, do not have that gift—or in the case of Jonathan, that ability.
Speech has been Jonathan’s biggest delay in his life. Jonathan has had some form of speech therapy all of his life, and we have seen him make good improvements. Yet even those improvements leave him way behind his peers. The gap is huge. It is a struggle for him to verbally compose sentences; he knows that he can get his meaning across to us, his parents, with a word or two. Yet we are constantly saying to him, “How about a sentence?” Only then will he come up with one. You can easily see the impact that this delay would have on his socialization with peers.
Most kids Jonathan’s age simply do not want to work that hard at communicating with someone if they’re going to be friends with that person, they just don’t. Quick judgments get made and kids don’t have the desire or interest in making an effort to get to know Jonathan; “What possible benefit is going to come to me if I do that?” Unfortunately, most all of Jonathan’s peers—at school and at church—have chosen not to make that effort, either consciously or unconsciously, in a fraction of a second. They see him, see what’s going on with him, and decide against knowing him. Snap. Just like that, in a second or less—with very few exceptions.
Since moving to Phoenix, Jonathan has one peer-aged friend—to all others in his life, Jonathan is an invisible man. He enjoys older adults and their company, because usually they’re hanging out with Beth and me and they make the effort and take the time to talk to him. His speech therapist gets a lot of speech out of him, but he’s paid to do that. Respite caregivers have the training and skill set and interest to talk with him. But again, they’re paid to do that. Recently we read in a Kathie Snow newsletter that the number one need parents of children with disabilities have is genuine friends—peers—for their children. Too often the only or best friends our kids have are people who are paid to be with them. How would you like that?
It hasn’t always been this way for Jonathan. When we lived in Greenville, SC, one family in our congregation had two girls, one on either side age-wise of Jonathan. These girls didn’t care that Jonathan had Down syndrome; they didn’t care that Jonathan didn’t talk much, or was hard to understand. They didn’t care what their friends thought of them having Jonathan as their friend. They just wanted to be Jonathan’s friend. He was for them the brother they were never going to have, and they just loved loving on him, and his loving them back. Wonder of wonders.
Sure, sometimes it was “your guess is as good as mine” as to what he might have been saying, but those times lessened and finally disappeared. It’s amazing how the human brain can pull meaning out of difficult speech if we make an effort, if we listen with the heart first, if we just look at someone’s eyes and listen deep within. And let me tell you, Jonathan has beautiful eyes. And those eyes open up into a beautiful soul, a person with deep love and caring, who is fun and funny and delightful to be around. Krysta and Anna knew that Jonathan. No one has known him like that since we left for Arizona.
Jonathan is not the only invisible person in this world, or even near you. I promise that if you begin to look around you, you will see others. The best way to spot invisible people is first by growing silent within yourself, and then in that silence, start to look around you in all areas of your life: Work or near where you work; in the place where you shop, or entertain yourself, or near where you live, your neighborhood; your school, your church. Trust me, you will see others. They may not have a disability like Jonathan does, but they are invisible, nonetheless.
Jesus always saw invisible people and reached out to them. He touched them, often making himself ritually unclean in the process: the woman with the twelve-year flow of blood; Zacchaeus; the Syrophoenician woman; the blind man whom he healed with spittle made mud; the Samaritan woman at the well; the Gerasene demoniac. This is an incomplete list. He saw these men and women, whom their neighbors did not see or chose not to see, and in that seeing he touched their deepest humanity, their sense of self. He touched them because he saw their humanity bound up with his humanity, and honoring their humanity broadened his own humanity, his heart, his compassion, his love of neighbor. This kind of loving action towards others still expands each of us as it did Jesus and countless others. It is the road less travelled.
It is risky to do this. You will have to enter your uncomfortable zone for a while, but only a while. The more you do something you’re not used to doing, the easier it becomes. Seneca once said, “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” The rewards that await you far outweigh the risks involved. The other risk is that being friends with people whom society treats as “invisible” might change you in ways unexpected, surprising and holy. What a gift.
So what about you? Monty Python’s Flying Circus aside, tell me: Have you seen an Invisible One? Have you seen—truly seen—my invisible son?