When the doctor first examined him, the doctor reported that he was the most disgusting and repulsive approximation of a man he’d ever seen. The grotesquely disfigured man had come to the doctor at London Hospital because he had nowhere else to turn. He had preserved the doctor’s business card that he was given when they first met.
He had spent the majority of his young life being exhibited in freak shows. According to our lecturer on the Queen Mary II, this young man was on display in Amsterdam when the owner of the freak show abandoned him after stealing his entire earnings. The young man, cloaked and hooded to hide from the stares and shock of the public, managed to cross the English Channel and presented himself to the physician who, long ago, gave him his business card.
The doctor was named Frederick Treves, a prominent surgeon, author and omnivorous learner. The young man was named Joseph Merrick, otherwise advertised and exhibited as the "Elephant Man." They formed a warm friendship. Treves promised Merrick he could stay at London Hospital and raised sufficient funds to support him. Treves initially thought Merrick as mentally deformed as he was physically. With patience he discovered Merrick’s inability to communicate resulted from his abnormalities. With patience, he began to understand Merrick’s garbled speech.
Other folk, prominent in society, took an interest in Merrick. Perhaps they visited out of pity. Perhaps some, as gawkers do, couldn’t pass up the chance to witness something ugly, horrible. All who took the time, however, began to discover a man who was sensitive, insightful, generous and, despite the abuses and isolation he suffered his entire life, was forgiving and loving. Merrick created, with great difficulty, artistic gifts for his friends.
We can gain what I call Jesus eyes. It is the incredible and incredulous ability to look at someone and know of their flaws, their deformities of mind and soul, their sins, and still love them, still embrace their humanity. This doesn’t mean you ignore the sin, error, or flaws – no. You must be brutally honest. You cannot dismiss wrong. All the more reason, then, to view them with Jesus eyes.
It has to do with doors. As a kid, I remember thinking about the troubles my family was going through. It also occurred to me how we were a really good family. We had our scrapes and scraps, but overall we were happy, healthy, successful.
One day we learnt how my father wrested a shotgun from the hands of a neighbor suffering from cancer, preventing his suicide. Dad told him this wasn’t how he wanted his children to remember him.
How could we kids have known then that neighbor X was an alcoholic or about the silly, sad, corrosive games some adults played when they would gather for their many parties? Those secret gestures between his wife and her husband. Wife tired of husband’s flirting. Husband tired of wife’s admiration for someone else.
I stood looking at my house. I looked at my front door and thought about all the stuff going on behind our door. It made me look at all the other doors in my neighborhood and wonder: What’s going on behind their doors?
Very early I realized unfairness, hurt, sickness, emptiness, wanting to be loved, is our human norm. Us divided from each other. Us divided from the essence of what makes us whole. Suffering is normal. Behind those doors.
It seems a shame children must learn what adults discover about what really goes on in a town, in families, behind the closed doors of our homes. The Joseph Merrick trick is to avoid being tainted by the pain. We need more than love. We need justice. Mishpat is a key Hebrew Bible word. Mishpat speaks of justice, balance, trying to get right what we can get right. Things made right. As people. Nations too. It’s amazing how ugly people can be beautiful, and beautiful people ugly.
Before he died from the weight of his malformed body suffocating him, Merrick wrote this poem, paraphrasing in the second stanza a poem called “False Greatness," written by English hymn writer, Isaac Watts.
‘Tis true my form is something odd.
But blaming me is blaming God,
Could I create myself anew,
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole,
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul:
The mind’s the standard of the man.
The Rev. Robert Andrews is retired pastor of Grove Presbyterian Church in Danville. Read more of his work at robertjohnandrews.com.