Biff America: Love and compassion on the high seas
According to Michael Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization the term “Ship of fools” was used during the Middle Ages to describe 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 month when I was passenger on, a ship hauling a very human, 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 even an immigrant 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 autumn 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 mentally impaired.
There were some who appeared to be saddled with “Down’s syndrome” as well as several who looked have “acquired brain injuries” and others who suffered from, I’m not sure what, but something definitely wrong syndrome.
With each passenger of special needs was at least one who appeared to be of able body and mind. There were at least 30 of them and they all gathered on the starboard-bow (front-right side) of the boat. From my uneducated vantage point, depending on the passenger, they each experienced various degrees of awareness. I tried not to stare but I was curious and hopeful that most were enjoying the day as much as I was.
About five minutes before we were scheduled to depart, I noticed some commotion on the dock below. Fifteen or 20 people rushed out on the wharf and began to sing.
What they were doing was less of singing more of serenading. And along with the vocals was intricate, 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 Madona’s “Like a Virgin” complete with an extremely funny charade.
The performers were counselors at an island camp catering to the developmentaly disabled. I heard someone say that many on the boat were returning from a visit to that camp 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. As I said, their choreography was wildly kinetic; I would imagine that subtleties might be lost on some of that audience.
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 and seemed upbeat, content and happy. I found myself envious of a career with a job description that reads “give love”.
Tearing my eyes away from the show on the docks below, I looked towards the intended audience. Some were trying to sing along, others simply swayed back and forth, and almost all basked in the love and 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 their plight I’m grateful for my blessings. But soon after that I wonder, why?
If there is such a things as “divine direction” why does God burden the innocent? And more importantly will there be recompense when those who suffer in life get pleasured in death?
Personally my mind can’t comprehend a world of suffering without payback. Certainly, if that were the case I’d feel more pity for the afflicted and gratitude for my own gifts but the unfairness would be overwhelming.
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 cuts both ways and love is never wasted.
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