I am on a plane. There are three mentally handicapped men two rows behind me.
I saw them at the gate. Actually, I heard them at the gate—heard someone cry out, as if in sudden pain. I turned immediately to see what was the matter. It was a man whose body was torqued, whose face was disfigured by the force of his cry. I could see that he was mentally ill. A woman who was clearly a companion to this man, and two others like him, shushed him gently.
While I waited at the gate there were frequent load groans, cries and what sounded like heaves of despair. People around me looked slightly annoyed.
When I found my seat in 27D I noted that the criers were two rows behind me. (On a five and a half hour flight!) This would be like sitting next to a crying baby for endless hours, I figured, and I located my ear buds. Beethoven’s Eroica would have to come to my rescue.
The cries came on soon enough, and when the plane hit turbulence, and even the flight attendants had to be seated and belted in, the groans and ejaculatory shouts rose like a chorus from the three men.
I had thought I would be mostly annoyed, but in an odd way the more they yelled the more I was moved. When I heard the first cry, sitting in the gate, I turned instinctively to see who was injured. “Normal” adults only cry out like that if they are in sudden physical pain. Once I realized that these people weren’t “normal” I could go back to my emails: the noise was not connected to anything real. It was just crazies.
But now, hour after hour, wail after wail, I began to feel differently. Could these men simply be giving voice to all the cries of us “normal” people? If the rest of us cried when we were sad and lonely or in pain or afraid the whole plane would be in Babel. But we have all learned how to keep those cries stifled in our souls.
Jean Vanier, who founded the L’Arche communities—where the mentally handicapped live with companions in compassion—once heard the cries of men like this. He visited a small residence for the handicapped and heard shrieks and moans that at first disturbed him. Ultimately he heard something deeper, echoes of what he called the “primal cry.” He began to hear, “Do you love me?” or “Why have I been abandoned?” or “Has my life any value?” or simply, “Do you want to be my friend?”
This is the cry of every man and woman. It is the call that Jesus found impossible to ignore. If we listen carefully we can hear even the silent cry of all our “normal” friends and loved ones. Then a smile or a gentle touch can offer simple compassion.
I disembark with deep gratitude to these three beautiful men who taught me that I did not need my ear buds and Eroica to shield me from my friends, to hear the sound of being truly human.