Ship of fools.”
The term was coined during the middle ages describing the practice of putting local “lunatics” onto ships as forced crewmen. This cruel practice was a way to rid the communities of a segment of the population that many feared and shunned and provide free labor for the ship owners.
I was reminded of that expression last week when I was passenger on, a boat hauling a special and delicate cargo.
My mate and I were leaving the island of Martha’s Vineyard. “The Vineyard” could be called the epicenter of East Coast privilege. Though there is a sizable middle class and workforce, the typical Vineyard visitor personifies New England straight teeth and opportunity.
We boarded for the 45 minute ride to the mainland and headed for the upper deck to enjoy the sun and late summer views. As we watched our fellow passengers embark we couldn’t help but notice that in addition to the usual linen-pants-and-boat-shoe crowd there were many who seemed less blessed and more challenged.
There were some who appeared to be saddled with Down’s syndrome, several who looked have “acquired brain injuries” and others with various mental and physical challenges.
With each passenger of special needs was at least one escorting them who appeared to be of able body and mind. There were about 30 or 40 all told gathered on the dock side of the boat. From my uneducated vantage point, depending on the passenger, they each experienced various degrees of awareness — some looked around with wonder, some gazed off into the distance, others stared at their feet and rocked.
I tried not to stare but I was curious and hopeful that most were enjoying the day as much as I. About five minutes before we were scheduled to depart there was a commotion on the dock below. Fifteen or 20 people rushed out on the quay and began to sing.
Actually, singing is a poor choice of word — serenading would be more appropriate. With heads high gazing at the group assembled above them they sang, danced and waved. Along with the vocals was a wildly kinetic, choreography. Most of the songs were popular rock tunes of the last couple of decades with a few golden oldies thrown in. One song I remembered was “Shake Your Booty,” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band, complete with a bottom-shaking choreography.
The performers, we learned, were employed at an island camp catering to the developmentally disabled. I heard someone say that many on the boat were returning from an extended — one or two week visit — and the counselors were seeing them off. After each number, the performers would wave, jump up and down and point at the group on board. The dancing was dynamic, which was necessary; I would imagine that subtleties might be lost on some of that audience.
With each song the group on board grew more aware and engaged. The blank stares were replaced with smiles and laughter; the rocking turned into dancing.
The counselors were in their 20s and 30s. They were clean cut, casually dressed and had obviously done this before. They also looked like they enjoyed their jobs. I found myself envious of a career with a job description that reads “show love.”
Tearing my eyes away from the docks below, I looked toward the intended audience. Some were trying to sing along, others swayed back and forth and all basked in the attention as if it were warm sunlight.
Whenever I see a person saddled with a mental or physical challenge or hardship my first thought is of sympathy my second is of gratitude; I’m sorry for his or her plight and reminded of my blessings. But soon after that I wonder — why?
If there is such a things as “divine direction,” why would a heavenly entity burden the innocent? And more important will there be recompense when those who suffer in life get pleasured in death? My other hope is that perhaps with their unique perspective and being less burdened with reality, folks like those on that ship experience the good in this world — sunshine, love, friendship — more profoundly since it is not diluted by the concerns and minutia of a “normal” life. The same people with those same afflictions who, in the Middle Ages, were deemed “fools” my mother used to fondly would refer to as “God’s chosen.” I pray she was right and there will be a celestial payback.
Of course it is all mere speculation. During this life, none of us will know for certain. But what is real, apparent and undeniably true is that most of life’s blessing and curses are neither earned nor deserved. And if you asked any in the audience on the top deck, or those serenading from the docks below, I think most would agree that compassion is a double-edged sword that is offered and received with near equal joy.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.