Assuming Our Welcome

A friend of mine has a daughter with a severe genetic disability. She doesn't talk, is awkward in her movements, and is very shy around strangers. Though I've felt very ready to love her, I don't get to see her often and I, in turn, have been very shy around her.

She doesn't respond quickly to a warm or playful overture. She doesn't say welcoming things. Without convenient verbal cues, and always conscious that her brain is working in a way I don't understand, I become self-conscious in my interactions. Is my greeting welcome? Am I being too persistent, not respecting her desire to be left alone? Am I being condescending? Alternatively, am I trying to relate at a level she can't understand? Not knowing the answer to any of these questions, and not wanting to be disrespectful, I've been inclined to hold back.

I haven't been pleased with this state of affairs. After all, she is the beloved daughter of a dear friend. When the attempt to be respectful in such a situation results in a withdrawal of human contact, something is not right.

Another friend offered the vital shift in perspective. She was talking about children with special needs, and commented about what a gift they offer to the people in their lives. Since trying to love them for what they do would be an exercise in frustration much of the time, we have to love them just for who they are. And loving them in this way helps us to remember to love others just for who they are--which is what we all want anyway.

Somehow, having her say this, I felt permission to love this child--and everything fell into place. When you love a child, you don't worry about how you look, or how they respond. Since most people don't object to being loved, you don't worry about imposing. Verbal cues become unnecessary. You're not dancing come kind of complicated partner dance. You're just offering them your love.

The last time I saw this girl was pure pleasure. I assumed that we were old friends. (After all, we both loved her dad, and even though we'd both been shy, we'd spent some time together almost monthly for the past year, and that had to count for something.) I assumed that a big hug was in order. I assumed that she would be happy to have me snuggle up to her. I assumed that it would be okay to initiate playful games. I assumed that my presence, my love, was welcome.

What a difference! She was obviously pleased, and I felt wonderful. It was like reaching the end of a journey in foreign lands, no longer trying hard all the time to learn foreign customs and do the right thing so as not to offend the natives. It was like coming home.

It makes me wonder how often, when faced with someone we know is different, we get shy and withhold our natural warmth for fear of doing the wrong thing. How often do children with special needs (and so many others) suffer, and get excluded from our circle of warmth because of this diffidence? What would it be like if we always assumed that our love was welcome?