The Power of the Powerless

By Chris deVinck

Editor’s note. Mr. deVinck is author of one of the greatest books we ever reviewed at National Right to Life News—“The Power of the Powerless: a brother’s legacy of love.” He subsequently wrote the following essay for us, which appeared in the August 10, 1999, edition of NRL News. It is, in every sense, perfect for our year-long “Roe at 40” series in which we are running some of the best stories from NRL News going all the way back to 1973! Please share this with your friends, using your social networks.

power of the powerlessOn the front page of the New York Times this past April, there appeared a story about the impending appointment of Peter Singer, a controversial Australian bioethicist, who was to assume the prestigious Ira W. DeCamp Professorship of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values.

Professor Singer, according to the Times, is an outspoken advocate for euthanasia “not only for terminally ill adults,” the Times stated, “but also for severely disabled infants.” Not surprisingly, advocates for the disabled vigorously protested his selection.

The newspaper ran a helpful sidebar which quoted from Professor Singer’s influential textbook, Practical Ethics. One minute is all that is needed to understand why the protesters were so angry: “Killing a disabled infant,” Singer writes, “is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”

Why? If the parents kill this disabled child, and have a child they would not otherwise have, Singer argues, “the loss of a happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second,” thus increasing the “total amount of happiness.”

When I read this amazing statement, I could not help but wonder what Professor Singer’s reaction would have been had he met my mother Catherine and my brother Oliver.

Oliver was born in 1948, the second child of Jose and Catherine de Vinck. He was profoundly disabled — blind, crippled, incapable of speaking or even chewing solid food. He would never learn, run, or hold a fork.

For 32 years Oliver lay on his back in a bed, in the second room down the hall to the right, in the house of my father and mother. Outwardly, my brother could do nothing except eat, breathe, sleep, and, occasionally, laugh.

When I was a boy I thought that everyone had a brother like Oliver. He was not the center of the family but, simply, part of the family, just like everyone else.

Tending to Oliver’s needs was part of the normal routine my mother and father established for our family. During a hot New Jersey heat wave, for example, it was customary to make sure that Oliver had a cold drink of water two or three times a day.

Often at night my sister Anne and I would carry Oliver down the hall for a warm bath. She would place her hands under Oliver’s knees and I would place my hands under his arms, and together we would lift Oliver out of his bed. All the while my mother would tenderly call out instructions: “Lift him slowly,” she’d say. “Don’t back up into the chair, Chris. Watch his elbows. Don’t bump his elbows against the door frame.”

During his 32 years my brother Oliver brought surprising gifts into my mother’s life. This, she admitted, was not apparent to her at first. My mother’s initial response was to weep in her pillow, hiding her tears and grief and sadness from her family.

Yet because of Oliver, my mother began asking, and wrestling with, bigger questions: Why these trying circumstances of life? Why to her family? What is the meaning of its mystery? How do we live with the knowledge of what could have been in the face of what is?

Most of us will know this sort of pain and uncertainty at one time or another in our lives. But not all of us have the courage to stick with someone like Oliver, loving him in the face of all the impossible hurdles.

Professor Singer, no doubt, would have counseled my mother to place him in an institution, free herself of this “burden.” Wouldn’t this increase the “total amount of happiness”?

But how does one measure the worth of Oliver’s laugh, the color of his eyes, the feel of his tender skin? Could anyone have anticipated that from the small seed of Oliver’s helplessness, there would come forth what millions around the world would come to see as a modern parable?

Years later I wrote a small article for the Wall Street Journal about Oliver that struck a responsive chord. Hundreds of people wrote me letters about “The Power of the Powerless,” explaining the impact of the powerless people in their lives.

President Reagan read the article in the White House the very morning it appeared and sent me a personal letter in celebration of Oliver’s life. Eunice Kennedy Shriver and her husband Sargent Shriver invited me to Washington, D.C., to write for the Special Olympics.

Oliver’s influence extended all the way to Rome. Pope John Paul invited me to the Vatican to deliver the closing speech at an international conference on disabilities. I was asked to end the conference with the story of Oliver, and then I, Oliver’s brother, was brought to meet the pope. The Reader’s Digest, the Chicago Tribune, the New York papers, all asked permission to reproduce my essay.

Again and again people recognized the paradox that in all his weakness Oliver possessed great strength. Oliver survived because for thirty-two years other human beings placed food at his lips.

With each meal, Oliver was physically nourished. With each meal we who gave him food and drink were spiritually nourished.

In accepting Oliver for who he was, rather than lamenting what he was not, my mother rose to a new level of understanding that enriched her in the same way that Pearl Buck was enriched. Buck, the Nobel Prize winner, wrote about her severely disabled daughter in her slim classic, “The Child Who Never Grew”:

“There must be acceptance and the knowledge that sorrow fully accepted brings its own gifts,” Buck wrote. “For there is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet being happiness.”

When we are confronted with emotional pain, or loss, or sadness, some of us give up. Some destroy all that is around us. Some push away everything that is good. Some lock hope in a box, carry it up to the attic, and throw away the key.

But then there are other people who embrace their sadness and the possibility of peace, no matter how impossible or distant it seems to be. My father was such a man.

When he was asked how he managed to tend to Oliver’s needs for 32 years, he just said “It was not 32 years. It was one day at a time. Can I feed Oliver today? Yes. Can I bathe Oliver today? Yes. Can I love Oliver today? Yes.”

Can we be sad one day at a time? Can we love one day at a time? Can we handle our great joy one day at a time? Can we tend to our inner turmoil one day at a time? Yes we can.

And will all this lead to peace? Yes, yes it will, if we tend to the burdens of our lives with love, faith, hope, charity, joy, courage, dignity, humor. Oliver and my mother taught me this.

Over the long distance between Oliver’s birth and his death, my mother believed there was a unity of purpose in the journey. This assurance sustained and strengthened my mother, confirmed her faith, and, ultimately, brought her happiness. She believed in the power of the powerless, the mystery of sadness, and in the lost chances that opened her to other possibilities.

Because she was confined to the house, my mother fed her tested soul with books, poetry, and prayer. From these raw materials she fashioned a talent that made her one of the most influential women poets in America.

And because my mother said yes to life she decided to have four more children, passing along to each of us a vision that the Peter Singers of the world will likely never understand.

Sorrow pricks our hearts, and like any wound, we react to the pain. And when we are in pain, we seek solace from the hurt.

It is in this search for solace, which is universal, where we find God, or husband, or wife, or friend, or self in the most significant levels of meaning. In the quest for solace we discover who we are. Such a discovery leads, irrespective of circumstance, to the revelation of an inner peace.

I do not know why this is so, but it is. I do know that if we do not look for the joy in the sorrow, the sorrow will consume us, and we will perish.

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No matter how little rain, no matter how few people admire the garden or the gardener, if we tend to the roses, the blossoms will come.

Academic truth based on dry, unfeeling logic would never have quenched Oliver’s thirst in an August heat wave. Fortunately, we are far better people than the bioethicist could ever imagine.

It is too bad that Peter Singer never took my brother Oliver in his arms and carried him down the hall for a warm bath.

Editor’s note. Mr. deVinck is the author of many books. “The Power of the Powerless” can be purchased from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Please send your comments to daveandrusko@gmail.com.