There is a scene from one of my favorite directors, the great late heroic Japanese filmmaker Juzo Itami, from his film Shizukana Seikatsu (translated into English as a Quiet Life) that has lodged a special place inside my heart ever since watching this film many years ago.
For Seikatsu, Itami adapted the personal autobiography of his brother-in-law’s family, whose son struggled with severe mental and developmental handicaps. The book is hard to locate, but the story as illustrated in the movie is quite powerful and moving. As some may be aware, in Japan, it is not popular to be openly religious outside the mainstream Shinto Buddhism faith. The father in this story follows this view. He’s a professor at a prestigious university and out-and-out atheist.
Yet he has an encounter that despite his agnostic look at life, he admits looks a lot like faith.
The Water Rail:
There’s a movement of my heart that I can only call a prayer”
I have a son who’s mentally disabled. When he was little, he never uttered a single word. And not just that. When his mother talked to him, he wouldn’t react at all. We had a record album of birdsong at the time. It had recordings of the calls followed by the birds’ names. For example you’d hear the song of the bulbul. Then the narrator would say: “that was the bulbul” in a grave voice. That record was somehow the only thing my son would react to. So we’d play it ever day, from morning to night. My son kept listening to birdsong without saying a word. Until he turned 6.
Summer came around. Like every summer, I took him to our cottage in the highlands. One morning I went out into the woods, my son on my shoulders. When I heard a water rail cry. That light raspy call. Far above my head I heard: “that was the water rail.”
For a moment I had no idea what had happened. It couldn’t have been my son. I thought I was hearing things. But I also felt it was possible he had spoken. I hoped the water rail would call out again. “If it does, and if I hear my son’s voice again, it might mean he’s going to start speaking.”
So I waited, A gold birch tree shone in the sun and swayed in the wind and I looked on, waiting.
I believe that at that moment I was praying. I’m not a Christian or a Buddhist, yet there I was an unbeliever engaged in what was unmistakably a prayer.
At last the water rail called again, and from above my head I heard my son’s voice, clear and bright:
“Quee Nondas” “That was the water rail.”
I Could Not Deny It:
It’s a touching moment, and I struggle to watch that clip without some tears welling up. What I think in the clip resonates with me so strongly is not only my struggle with a very harsh set of disabilities but also my relationship with a cousin of mine with severe mental handicaps. But more than that, the story is special because Itami is touching upon in this story something that those of us that are Christian should be familiar with. Sacred moments, which speak deeply into our souls, special shining examples that stay in our hearts forever. Sometimes we call this faith or knowledge, but it is much more than that.
Though I know few of my readers are also members of my faith, I often think of the way the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints described why he could never recant on his faith claims. In this, I think there is some merit that all people of faith could take solace from.
25 I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.
I love this quote. Joseph Smith knew he’d experienced something very special, a sacred and profound moment, a gift, and as easy as it would have been to recant or equivocate; he knew by doing so that it would betray the very heart of his being. I’m sure all of us have had special moments like these, events that go beyond description and shape the very core of who we are.
How Disability Shapes Me:
My disability experiences are part of that for me. I’ve often heard from friends that my life and career would be easier if I didn’t make my disability issues known. It’s true that employers don’t want to hire people who potentially could become a liability. While there are laws against that, their effect is limited, because you are going against a fundamental tenet in human nature.
You’ve seen me talk about my pancreatitis, but I also struggle with some terrible vision problems. Since 2019 I’ve struggled with a harsh case of photophobia, meaning my eyes are extremely light-sensitive, hence why if you ever see me in public, I am always under the heaviest of sunglasses. Things were so bad in that first year that I couldn’t leave my room, even the small Bluetooth indicator light on my speaker was too bright for me.
This trial was/is very difficult, and it’s hard to describe how photophobia stops many totally normal life functions. This experience helped inspire me to become an independent journalist. It pushed me to think about the lives of the disabled, and how it shapes, well, everything.
Thankfully, I’ve found some relief from this condition. Now I can go out on cloudy days and watch tv or use a monitor with a strict color filter applied. You’ve seen me in streams and interviews; I can usually go an hour without the glasses, but not much more than that. Still, I’ve got enough function to get writing done for my career as a journalist and go on dog walks with my guard dogs the Admiral Snuggle Bear and Major Mika during the evenings.
But as easier as it’s gotten, this issue has never gone totally away. There is a very real social stigma with disability. Some people assume this is a result of some action of mine, others think I am exaggerating or making it up. At times I’ve wondered if they were right. Often problems in life are like that, issues and struggles that seemingly conquer your body and will; troubles and trials that seem to be beyond human control and often are at the suspicion and ridicule of strangers and sometimes even loved ones.
Disability is weird like that. If you spend any time with the online disability community, you will often find a deep loathing and a conspiratorial sense of ableism permeating everything and everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love the disabled community. Their stories and testimonies are a strength unto me and I’m grateful for having gotten to know them. However, disabled people often struggle to hear positive news or compliments from others.
If you were to go up to a disabled person and tell them that you see their struggles and am impressed by their strength; or that they are an inspiration to you; many of these folk would get angry. If you believe that their disability in some way made them a better human beings, you are just as judgmental as any bigot. It’s harsh, but I’ve had these exact same feelings before.
This is where Juzo Itami’s brother comes in.
They are wrong. Just as Itami’s brother learned, disability is not a curse, but a gift. These struggles we disabled deal with help us grow, and can bring deep truths to light that we couldn’t receive any other way.
However, physical difficulties aren’t’ the only suffering in life. So too can we be impacted by the bad choices we make? And too often, we look at sin the same way we look at a golf game, where every miss is a hit against you. We often believe, that we sin, we are not only doing something wrong or falling short, but we consider ourselves failures and lesser than we were before.
But this too is wrong.
In a favorite sermon of mine from Brad R. Wilcox, titled Worthiness is Not Flawlessness, he puts our spiritual disabilities into perspective. He tells the story of a young man that cannot seem to shake off the use of pornography and how it made the man feel hopeless and degraded.
Some mistakenly receive the message that they are not worthy to participate fully in the gospel because they are not completely free of bad habits. God’s message is that worthiness is not flawlessness. Worthiness is being honest and trying.
One young man I’ll call Damon wrote: “Growing up, I struggled with pornography. I always felt so ashamed that I could not get things right.” Each time Damon slipped, the pain of regret became so intense, he harshly judged himself to be unworthy of any kind of grace, forgiveness, or additional chances from God. He said: “I decided I just deserved to feel terrible all the time. I figured God probably hated me because I wasn’t willing to work harder and get on top of this once and for all. I would go a week and sometimes even a month, but then I would relapse and think, ‘I’ll never be good enough, so what’s the use of even trying?’”
So the young man approached a friend and priesthood leader in his church for guidance and advice. His leader wisely responded:
“You’re not a hypocrite because you have a bad habit you are trying to break…. Being honest about your actions and taking steps to move forward is not being a hypocrite. It is being a disciple.”
That perspective gave Damon hope. He realized God was not up there saying, “Damon blew it again.” Instead, He was probably saying, “Look how far Damon has come.”
Damon said: “The only time I had turned to God in the past was to ask for forgiveness, but now I also asked for grace
I Give Unto You Weakness:
This post is getting long, but I’d like to share a personal story that fundamentally shapes the way I view people, and why I try so very hard to be kind to others.
When I was 23 I got the opportunity to serve a full-time mission in the now-defunct, Rapid City, South Dakota Mission.
Going on a mission was something I felt I owed the Lord and something I desired to do. However, when I came to the mission, I shared the apartment with 5 other guys. One of the missionaries there, Elder A we shall call him, was, and there is no other way to put it: a jerk. He relentlessly berated me, mocked my accent, and generally was a pain in the butt. Some other things happened that I won’t go into here, but needless to say, his actions toward me made me question why I ever went on a mission in the first place.
However, eventually to our great relief and surprise, Elder A got transferred out to Casper as a Zone Leader. My mission then got substantially easier, at least back at home base. I didn’t have much love in my heart or respect for this elder. I didn’t understand the promotion, but I liked our Mission President well enough and trusted the Lord.
Sometime later, a young guy from Arizona transferred to the mission. We will call him Elder B. He had been assigned to our companionship for a test run to see what being a missionary was all about. During that time we bonded and learned that he had been a talented animator, with a deal with Disney, which he put aside to go and serve a mission. The elder also struggled with a heart defect, which the Rez doctors said wouldn’t be a problem. After spending some time with us, he too then got sent out to Casper.
What no one knew is that the doctor that had given the greenlight to this elder was not the best at his job. This elder’s heart was not in good condition, and during his first stint in Casper, got sick, collapsed, and passed away. This all happened while Elder A was in charge as Zone Leader.
Pegged All Wrong:
That next Tuesday, I received a profoundly moving and touching email from that Elder that completely changed how I saw this former bully of mine.
After Elder B collapsed, Elder A sat with him at the hospital for days, talking and joking with him. He prayed and spent time with him and was there with him when he passed. The email is too sacred to share here, but I can share the impression it gave me.
I had pegged Elder A all wrong. Where I saw a jerk, the Lord saw strength. His charisma and leadership potential, and most importantly, his heart. I would again serve with Elder A when I got transferred to Casper, which I enjoyed immensely. And Elder A was not much changed. But I remember that impression I received and remembered that I need to try to see this young man with the Lord’s eyes and not mine own.
My friends, we are tremendously flawed people, because we are human, we are sons and daughters in God in training for greater things than what we can see and do in this life. Do not allow your weaknesses, mistakes, and pain to stop you from growing, stop you from seeing the beauty and divine inspiration that can be found in this life.
In my favorite scripture from the Book of Mormon, in Ether 12: 27, the Lord tells us that “if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble, and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”
This Easter, I encourage all of you to consider how your struggles impact your life, and how those profound moments have changed the course of your destiny. I testify that our Heavenly Father and our Savior love each and every one of you. Our weakness, our shortcomings, our suffering, and our failures are great blessings to us and play a critical and essential part in our deep reserves of spiritual fortitude and strength.
Through Christ, we may be forgiven, and we will come to understand how we’ve been made stronger for it. We can let our mistakes and lacking crush us, cursing the creator for our place in this broken world or we can use our pain to fuel our growth, rising every day each more to become more than we are.
In the name of Jesus Christ Amen.