Our family has always talked a lot about gifts and challenges . . . how every person has both.
It actually started around the time Matt was 3 or 4, when his undiagnosed but obvious delays had begun dominating the conversation. The other kids loved him, but we wanted them to have a more balanced view of him. So it became a family game to look for things he was good at . . . his “gifts.” Over time, as a bonus, everyone really got into pointing out each others’ gifts . . . then, acknowledging their own gifts . . . and eventually, comfortably, their own challenges.
Consequently, Matt is aware of his challenges and talks about them easily. Another thing he does easily is meet people. “I meet people easily,” he’ll often say, adding, “It’s a gift.” And indeed it is. When a grocery checker rattles off the usual “How ya doin’ today?” Matt doesn’t just say “Fine.” He says, “Fine. How are you doing?” Few people do that, acknowledge them in that way, so it always brings a smile and an interesting answer. And they remember him next time.
He picked up that particular way of connecting by hearing it said by his Bonus Dad (we don’t like the “step” word). That’s one of my husband’s gifts, too. Matt was probably just copying Steve the first time he did it, but experiencing the response, he made it his own gift. It’s okay to “acquire” a gift by watching a good role model. Aren’t we all striving to follow the Savior’s example?
Now I’m not saying Matt never expresses frustration with his challenges.
When he turned 18 years old, we had a special birthday party. All the significant people in his life participated in a group discussion with Matt about some of his goals. He said he’d like to go camping (who knew?) so our Home Teacher said they would take him with them next time they went. That sort of thing.
Finally, he addressed what he wanted to be now that he was “grown up.” He announced that he wanted to be either a doctor . . . or a bagger at Dan’s Grocery Store. We decided to go with bagger first.
“Will you teach me the skills?” he asked his sister, who worked part-time there. With her coaching, he started re-bagging our groceries for practice when we got home. Then we got the school to arrange for a real job coach and Dan’s allowed him to practice bagging during slow periods of the day. Eventually, they awarded him a bow tie and an apron with his name on it. Surely, they never had a more enthusiastic new employee.
It wasn’t long before we sensed trouble. On his own, in the pressure of the moment, things did not go well. He got confused. He couldn’t bag quickly enough. Feeling the impatience of customers made him freeze up even more. It just wasn’t working out.
One afternoon, he came home, slumped in a chair, held up his hands and stated in the poignant way he speaks sometimes . . . “My hands just won’t do what I tell them to, sad to say.”
Matt bounced back from that defeat, and went on to try other ways of contributing. For awhile, he went to a day program at a center where, though actually an attendee, he did everything he could to help and spoke of it as his job. “What exactly do you do?” a neighbor asked. “I help people with disabilities. I’m a role model.” No doubt.
The gospel teaches that recognizing our strengths and weaknesses … our gifts and challenges … is part of this earthly education. And surely, following the Savior’s example means looking on everyone . . . even ourselves . . . with charity as well as an appropriate esteem.
So Matt is not embarrassed to tell people he can’t read or write or button his shirt, but he just as comfortably tells them that he has a gift for music (that is, he seems to know the words and title of every song that comes on the radio.) “Isn’t that Bad, Bad Leroy Brown?” he asks, 5 seconds into the intro. Nobody’s singing yet. The song’s easily 30 years old. I can’t believe he’s ever heard it. I barely remember it.
How does he do that, we wonder? “It’s a gift,” he says solemnly . . . and then grins.