A few months ago, before our family of four moved to Boston, I took my two young boys to a local park to soak in some of the gorgeous weather we’d been enjoying in the Pacific Northwest. My four-year-old, Michael, made a beeline for the sandbox while I plunked two- year-old Peter into a swing. He giggled delightedly as he sailed back and forth, the breeze gently lifting his feathery hair. It was a perfect late-spring day in Seattle, and as I pushed Peter’s swing I reflected on the blessings of our four-year sojourn in the Emerald City: the wonderful friends, the opportunities for work and play, the incredible landscape we had fallen in love with.
My reverie was broken when a middle-aged couple approached the otherwise empty playground. I smiled to myself as they wandered toward the climbing equipment, joking and laughing with one another. How sweet, I thought, as I witnessed their playfulness. And then it happened: after the man’s awkward tumble from a swing, the woman rolled her eyes and said, “You’re so retarded.” The echo of the word lingered in the air, stark and ugly, as I looked over at my baby boy, oblivious to anything but the joy of swinging. My beautiful boy, who happens to have Down syndrome.
I hear the “R” word fairly infrequently these days, but when I do it nearly knocks the wind out of me. I used the word myself when I was young to describe anything I thought was stupid or ridiculous. It wasn’t until college that I learned about just language, and suddenly I became painfully aware of the damage I could inflict with my careless words. I remember feeling deeply ashamed that I never made the connection between the “R” word and the people it denigrates. I suspect it’s the same for others – sometimes repugnant words infiltrate our vocabulary, and until we’re alerted to their harmful implications we continue to use them without much thought. Prior to having Peter hearing the “R” word made me cringe, but now it’s like a knife to the heart. It is personal, it is painful, and it is deeply offensive.
If your experience as a parent is anything like mine, your life is filled with moments when you must decide whether to speak up or stay silent, to step in or stand back. In this case, I chose silence. I can rationalize my decision until I’m blue in the face. The couple had already started moving away from the playground; I would have had to chase them down. Peter is too young to know what the “R” word means, and Michael wasn’t within earshot. I didn’t want to tarnish precious time with my boys by inciting an argument with people I didn’t know. An easy decision? Sure. An understandable decision? Perhaps. A just decision? Certainly not.
Advocacy has never been my strong suit. It feels natural to practice kindness and empathy, but mustering the courage to stand up for what is right when faced with confrontation is one of my most difficult personal challenges. Yet this is how I experience God calling me to live the magis – to step away from what’s comfortable, to choose justice over fear. This is my “more.”
It feels especially important to strive for this magis now that I have children. I want to model compassion and empathy as well as courage and integrity. I want my boys to grow up understanding that the words they use can shape the way they think and feel about themselves, others, and the world around them. I want them to befriend the kid who’s picked last for kickball, to sit with the kid who’s alone in the lunchroom.
I continue to reflect on that day at the playground with a sense of failure as well as renewed determination. I did Peter an injustice by not speaking up that day, and I’m not proud of it. Sadly, I know I’ll be presented with plenty of future opportunities to speak out against words that inflict harm. The day will come when someone uses the “R” word in front of Peter or – God forbid – directs it at him, and he’ll understand what it means. It breaks my heart to even think about it. When that day does come, I hope and pray that Peter will hold his head high, confident in the knowledge of his own worth and the depth of love surrounding him, and speak up on his own behalf for what is good and right and just.
I pray for the courage to live with integrity. I pray for the strength to stand up for justice. I pray for the ability to model these values for my boys – my beautiful boys, one of whom happens to have Down syndrome.
Emily Rauer Davis is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross (99) and Weston Jesuit School of Theology (03), and is also an FJV (Fresno 99-00). She’s worked at several Jesuit institutions and apostolates, including Holy Cross, Loyola University Maryland, Seattle University and the Ignatian Spirituality Center in Seattle. Emily and her husband Andrew live in the Boston area with their two boys, Michael (age 4) and Peter (age 2).