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A Parable to Ponder – Why Does God Permit Disability?

June 16, 2016
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Photo Credit: Jaclyn Lipplemann, Catholic Standard

Allow me to begin with a simple parable. Every now and then I take a perfectly good paper clip and untwist it, reconfiguring it for some other purpose. Once, I used them to hang Christmas ornaments on my tree. Another time I fashioned a paperclip into a hook to keep my broken file drawer from rolling open. Now if paperclips could see or think, they might be horrified and saddened to see a fellow paperclip so deformed. Perhaps I could try to explain that not only were their “deformed” brethren not a disaster, they were actually quite useful and important to me in their condition. But alas, paperclips can’t understand this; they just “look on” with sadness and horror. After all, how can you expect a paperclip to understand any function other than holding together sheets of paper? They can’t understand things beyond the world that they know.

I have often wondered if this isn’t somewhat analogous to our understanding of things such as disability, birth defects, and the personal challenges of some of our fellow humans. As we look upon the disabled, the handicapped, the deformed, and the mentally ill, we are often moved to sadness and even horror. And we sometimes ask why God allows this. We often conclude that such people’s lives are unhappy or that they will never reach their full potential.

And yet I wonder if we really know what we’re talking about. Who of us can really say what our own purpose is in God’s plan is, let alone anyone else’s? We are like paperclips; we know only one thing. Our minds are too small to ever comprehend the very special and significant role that even the most “impaired” in our world play. Perhaps in Heaven we will realize what indispensable and central roles they had in God’s plan and His victory. Of all the paperclips in my drawer, some of the most useful to me are the ones I’ve twisted and refashioned.

A knowledge too high – I pray that you will accept my humble example of a paperclip. I mean no disrespect to humanity in comparing us to paperclips. We are surely more precious and complicated and God does not use us cavalierly like paperclips. But my example must be humble in order to illustrate what is a knowledge too high for us to grasp: the dignity and essential purpose of every human being to God and His plan.

Our judgment in this matter isn’t much better than that of a paperclip, when compared to God’s omniscient wisdom. If it is absurd for us to imagine that a paperclip could understand our ways, is it any less absurd to think we can understand God’s ways? And if we can’t understand His ways, then why do we make judgments as to another person’s role, usefulness, beatitude, or status?

It is easy for us to look down on the poor, but Scripture says that we should look up to them. God is especially close to the poor, the suffering, the brokenhearted, and the humble. Scripture says that God uses the lowly to humble the proud. And yet we so easily look with pity on those we consider disadvantaged.

Over twenty years ago, I worked for a year with the profoundly mentally disabled. They lay in beds and wheelchairs, often having little control over their muscles. None of them could talk and only a few could engage in even the most rudimentary communication. There was one man in his forties who had never emerged from a fetal position. He lay in a large crib, his tiny yet clearly adult body curled up like a newborn. But on his face was an angelic smile that almost never diminished.

He had been baptized as an infant and to my knowledge could not have sinned. Each visit, I looked with marvel upon his innocent and beatific countenance. What an astonishing gift he was! And who knows, except God, why he was this way? But God does know; I think He had very important reasons for permitting this. There was something central and indispensable in this man’s existence, some role that only he could fill. Apparently I was not able to fill it.

In this sense he was not disabled—he was differently abled, uniquely abled for something out of the ordinary. Looking upon him, I had little doubt that he was directly in touch with God in a way that I never had been; his radiant face conveyed that. With our human eyes we can be saddened, even appalled. But we’ll understand it better someday. One day, in the great by and by, we may be surprised to learn that the most critical people in God’s plan were the most humble and the most broken, and that we would never have made it without them.

This video depicts the paradox of disability that sometimes shines through to teach us that we do not see the whole picture. Patrick Henry Hughes was born with significant defects, but as he grew, remarkable gifts showed forth. This is just a little reminder from God, a glimpse of what God sees. To Him, the disabled are differently and wonderfully abled.

Meet Patrick Henry Hughes:

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Comments (6)

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  1. Nick says:

    “In this sense he was not disabled—he was differently abled”

    Do not dress up suffering as non-suffering. The Lord Who is Rich became Poor, so that sharing in His Poverty, we might become Rich like Him. God was not born “differently wealthy and strong” but poor and weak in a cave, and He did not die “differently clothed and joyful” but naked and suffering on a cross.

    As God does not dress up suffering as non-suffering, but bears our suffering for and with us and preaches the Good News to the poor and needy, so let us imitate His Mercy and Justice, Providence and Will, as His adopted brothers, neighbors of the poor, friends of our enemies, and children of His Church.

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      perhaps you missed the phrase “in this sense” It is known as a qualifier.

  2. Ruth Ann Pilney says:

    This post is very inspiring to me. You have answered a question that I often have wondered about.

  3. Christina says:

    Thank you for posting the Patrick Henry Hughes video. And with your thought provoking post, I’m also rethinking my conception of “disability”. As Ruth Ann writes, ‘this post is very inspiring to me.

  4. Jane says:

    The paperclip parable is clear and helpful, thank you.

  5. Ramanie says:

    Thank you Mgr Charles Pope for this wonderful article. So very true and very close to my heart as l have a son with Cerebral Palsy. To me he is so richly blessed.Thank you again and God bless you.