On the Road in NH, the Natural from Boston Had No Trouble Connecting

Thursday, May 29, 2014

      “Nothing truly worthwhile was ever achieved without absolute sincerity.”  
                                                                                             - Confucius

Jim Brett is a natural politician, maybe one of the best ever from the Dorchester section of Boston.  This means he must be a good actor, right?

Jim Brett never plays a part, which, as Marcus Aurelius said many centuries ago, is the essence of morality.  “Never to play a part.” 

The world may be a stage but you can’t put people on if you want to live an ethical life.
Brett means what he tells you.  If he gives advice, it’s something he himself would do in a heartbeat, or has already done.

Maybe that’s why he got a standing ovation after delivering the commencement address at Rivier University, my wife’s alma mater, a few weeks back.  The kids could tell he was on the level.  And he said something worth listening to. 
There Jimmy was, the former prodigy of the Massachusetts House, in Nashua, New Hampshire, on a cool Monday morn in May, talking about “special” people on what was obviously a special day for the graduates.  But he wasn’t referring to the graduates; he was talking about persons who are challenged by physical, mental and other difficulties.

“…we find ourselves using the word ‘special’ as a kind of euphemism for something we have difficulty saying directly,” said Brett, who has been the President/CEO of The New England Council since 1996.*  “We say a child has ‘special needs’ or is a ‘special child,’ partly because it seems kinder than using some colder, clinical term, and partly because we are a bit embarrassed by our own difficulty in facing a disturbing reality.  Sometimes I wonder whether using the word this way says more about the speaker than the person spoken about.  But mostly, I think, it is used with genuine tenderness and caring.  The Special Olympics are an example.”
Brett knows this subject intimately.  His late, older brother, Jack Brett, was born with a significant intellectual disability.  “We five other kids (in the Brett family) were expected to, and we joyfully did, help look after Jack,” he says. 

Helping those with such disabilities is a profoundly serious commitment of his.  President Barack Obama recognized that commitment in a formal way by appointing Brett  chairman of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities early in his first term.  This has given Brett a national platform on the issue.
Rivier is a Catholic college and Brett is “a fish-eating Catholic,” as they used to say in Boston a long time ago.  So it was natural for him, as he exhorted the graduates not to shun those who need their help, to allude to the events of Holy Week.

“A couple of weeks ago, at the Good Friday liturgy,” he said, “I listened to the familiar reading from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant, prefiguring the crucifixion.  ‘He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, from whom men hid their faces.’  But in the particular translation used that day, the last phrase was recast: he was a man ‘from whom we turned our gaze.’  That struck me with a chill.  It seemed to emphasize not just a failure to see, but rather a seeing and, having seen, a turning away.  The question hit me like a brick: From whom do I turn away my gaze?”
Brett continued:

“Like an ancient idolatry, our popular culture is consumed with pursuit of physical perfection.  The images are relentless in the media.  Bodies that are not thought to be perfect enough are sculpted and air-brushed and photo-shopped until they are satisfactory for worship.  ‘If you don’t (or can’t) look like this,’ the images say, ‘too bad for you.’

“Advances in genetic research have given hope for treatment, and even cures, of serious and debilitating diseases, all to the good, but with that progress has come the prospect of designer babies, re-engineered to taste.
“The new eugenics is on the horizon pressing its case, arguing that some lives are worth more than others, that we shouldn’t ‘waste’ our resources on unworthy subjects, that the disabled and the elderly should cooperate by getting out of the way.

“These impulses whisper to us, ‘Turn away your gaze.’  They say, there are exceptions to full membership in the human family.  We rejected that advice with respect to Jack.  We didn’t look away; we looked to bring him closer.  We insisted that he was as much a member of the family as anyone.
“The advice to divide the human family into worthy and unworthy is, quite literally, inhuman.”

Jim Brett has never been an excluder.  He doesn’t hold grudges, doesn’t keep score.  Still, he got elected eight times (1981-96) to the House from Dorchester, the major leagues of Massachusetts politics. Amazing.

*The New England Council bills itself as “an alliance of schools, hospitals, corporations, and other private organizations throughout New England, working together to promote economic growth and a high quality of life in the region.”  It identifies and supports federal policies of importance to all six states, and advocates for its membership regionally and nationally.

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