Friday, October 25, 2013

What's Right With This Picture

Centuries ago, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Philippi.  St. Paul was facing a myriad of struggles in both his life and his ministry when he wrote this letter.  Paul also carried the responsibility of encouraging an early community of believers in Philippi who were trying to figure out if Jesus really meant what he said when he called us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Paul gives detail to a number of specific issues that the church was facing.  However, he calls them beyond a prescription for righting all that's wrong to a description of what life could really be like.  Paul writes, "Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies." (Philippians 4:8, The Message paraphrase) 

Recently, TIME magazine ran a story noting that the perception of those living with autism is shifting toward a focus on the unique strengths and skillsets of the autistic mind rather than a narrow view of its limitations.  (TIME, What's Right About the Autistic Mind).  In fact, depending on how those with autism were evaluated, the perception of the limitations ranges from significant to non-existent.  Temple Grandin and Richard Panek write, "In 2007, researchers at the Rivièredes- Prairies hospital at the University of Montreal published a study showing that the measure of autistic intelligence depended on what tests the subjects were given. When children with autism took a test that depended on providing information they could have learned only through social interactions, one-third qualified as "low functioning." Yet when the same subjects took a test that depended on providing only nonverbal information, only 5% were labeled low-functioning. What's more, one-third qualified as having "high intelligence." "We conclude," the Montreal group reported, "that intelligence has been underestimated in autistics."  The dichotomy begins in the focus.  Imagine a child with autism walking along a path and coming upon two roads.  One road begins with testing that labels them low functioning and leads them to education and support that spends a lifetime on working on overcoming weaknesses.  The other road begins with testing that shines a spotlight on their uniqueness but invites them into countless opportunities wherein their unique strengths might be utilized.  The latter filling minds with what's possible. 

Paul's words to the church in Philippi and the authors of the article on autism weren't burying their head in the sand nor were they Pollyanna in their encouragement.  Paul was facing daunting legal battles and a culture increasingly intolerant of his message.  One of the authors of the article in TIME lived a life that begged her to be defined by her own autism.  Both aggressively, rebelliously, and passionately refused to be drown by the daunting dark clouds of negativity.  They filled their minds with things to praise, not things to curse. 

Kobe Bryant is 35 years old, has logged more minutes on the court than most basketball players cumulate in a lifetime, and tore his Achilles in a game last April.  He has five championships and nothing more to prove.  Coming back from that injury at his age to a team that's in a rebuilding stage is all work and limited reward.  Though famous for his relentless attitude, Kobe, like the rest of humankind, carries doubt and a temptation toward focusing on worst potential outcome. "I have self-doubt," Bryant says in Sports Illustrated. "I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I'm like, 'My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don't have it. I just want to chill.' We all have self-doubt. You don't deny it, but you also don't capitulate to it. You embrace it. You rise above it. ... I don't know how I'm going to come back from this injury. I don't know... Then again, maybe I won't, because no matter what, my belief is that I'm going to figure it out. Maybe not this year or even next year, but I'm going to stay with it until I figure it out."  Bryant considers the challenges of his past only as hopeful indicators of his future. "I'm reflective only in the sense that I learn to move forward," Bryant says. "I reflect with a purpose."  Bryant may become the greatest player of all-time through filling his mind with what's purposeful and compelling.

It's finding the bright spots.  See what's right, focus on it, and find ways to do more of it.  Chip and Heath expound on this the concept of bright spots their book, Switch.  Find a bright spot and clone it.  That's the first step to fixing everything from addiction to corporate malaise to malnutrition. A problem may look hopelessly complex. But there's a game plan that can yield movement on even the toughest issues. And it starts with locating a bright spot -- a ray of hope.  (Fast Company, Made to Stick).

This is counterintuitive to many of us.  In ancient Philippi, local church leaders were frantic for answers and direction among divisive communities.  Conventional wisdom says that we can best help those with autism by focusing on the gap between their minds and a typical functioning mind.  Kobe Bryant has every reason to call it a career and slowly heal his heel in the soft California surf.  There is a better way.  Our minds want to focus on what's wrong, yet what we need is to see what's right.  It's how we see that changes everything.  It's how we see that builds churches that withstand 2,000 years of challenge.  It's how we see that allows an autistic mind to be identified by its gifts and flourish in a world that doesn't understand her.  It's how we see that pushes Bryant to spend countless hours in physical therapy, passionately working to get back on the court, again and again. 

Engage Community Church recently tweeted, "See people as valuable rather than useful."  Indeed, it's in how we see that changes the world, both for us and for others. 


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