Today’s video, produced by ESPN, tells the story of Heath White, the man whose perfect life didn’t turn out the way he expected. An overachiever, he excelled at everything he did: in school, on the athletics track, as a pilot. He married Jennifer, his high school sweetheart, and they soon had a beautiful daughter.
Heath looked forward to them having a son to round out their perfect family, so it was obviously a disappointment when their second child turned out not only to be a girl,but also to have Down’s syndrome. Heath’s main concern was what people would think of him. How could he, the perfect man, have a “broken baby”?
When I first saw this video I was mainly struck by the obvious pro-life aspect, especially the courage of Jennifer in refusing to have an abortion despite her fears that her husband would leave. But there is a lot more to it than that (so much more than I have space for here!) and for this reason I am going to mention a few other points which I think would make for an interesting discussion.
What does it mean to be perfect?
We live in a very perfectionist culture, and in many ways the more we achieve the harder it is for us when we fail. We are pushed to excel at everything, whether that means being the smartest, the fastest, the most popular, the owner of the coolest cell phone, or the biggest house. Being the best is made even harder by the opposing train of thought which says that it’s not fair if some people are better at things than others and so there will be no prizes, because everyone’s a winner! We then find ourselves wondering, how am I supposed to succeed when the opportunities to succeed have been taken away from me? Even the Gospel tells us to “be perfect” as our heavenly Father is perfect. Be as perfect as God? But I’m not the best at anything! Why would God set me such an impossible task?
Heath is a man who has figured out the answer to this: he now knows he is not perfect, but one thing is, and that is his love for his daughter Paisley who was born with Down’s syndrome. God is perfect, He is love. So when we listen to the words of Jesus telling us to be perfect we need to remember that he is not talking about races or exams or possessions, it is not about never making a mistake, he is talking about love. Love, as St Augustine says, and do what you like.
God has a plan for our happiness beyond winning races
The plan is not about what we can do, it’s about who we are: it is a plan of love. To be happy, we need to be fully ourselves, the people God has called us to be. Part of that certainly includes nurturing the talents God has given us, but the way we become fully ourselves is by giving of ourselves to other people. Heath is obviously a great athlete, but he didn’t run 321 miles because he wanted to win races. He did it because he wanted the world to know he was proud of his daughter and to change the way people think about Down’s syndrome.
He was thrilled when they won a race, but his happiness in life comes from loving Paisley (and his other children), caring for her and being a good father. He gives himself to his daughter by loving her: this makes him happy and fulfilled. He started out with a checklist of perfection which he thought would lead to happiness, and it was only when he threw the list away that he really became happy. Real love always has the other’s interests at heart, and we can see this with Heath and Paisley.
Once his fears were for himself and what other people would think of him. Now his fears are only for Paisley, that other people might be unkind to her and cause her pain. Heath’s love is also open, he talks about what he has learned from Paisley. Jennifer also showed this real love (which often means standing out from the crowd) when she refused to do something she knew was wrong, literally risking her life as she knew it, when the man she loved asked her to. Loving in this way made Jennifer more open, and she was then able to allow Paisley into her heart soon after she was born.
The video gives witness to an amazing story and offers an excellent means to challenge some of the typical ideas that we have of perfection, love, and happiness. With this, a good question to ask ourselves is, “Where have our ideas about them come from?” What are our models of perfection, of love, and of happiness?”
As Christians, we need to be aware of the messages that the world is constantly giving us, what they are and where they come from. we need to have the truths of the Gospel at our fingertips so that when we come across these ideas (many of which are plain wrong, or even crazy) we know how to respond to them.