How do we love the unlovely? That is one of the questions Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise explore inRain Man. Hoffman earned an Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, a man with autism whose family had chosen to place him in an institution after he had accidentally harmed Charlie, his younger brother. Because of that, Charlie (played by Cruise) never learns of his brother’s existence until after his father’s death. Charlie is surprised to learn that his father had left most of his fortune to a trust fund that paid for Raymond’s expenses. Determined to obtain a share of the money, Charlie entices Raymond out of the mental institution and takes him on a road trip to his home in California, where he intends to file a lawsuit for custody of his brother. The rest of the movie is a journey on many levels as Charlie begins to see Raymond not as an easily exploitable asset, but as a remarkable human being, and as the loving and lovable brother he has missed all his life.
The audience shares that journey thanks to Hoffman’s masterful performance. By the end of the movie we are still a bit awkward and uncomfortable around Raymond, but we no longer think of him as something less than ourselves. He is brilliant in his own way, far more capable with computations and connections than most of us could ever be. In an odd way he is charming, affectionate, and even adorable. Once we look beyond his peculiar mannerisms and grow accustomed to his unique forms of expression, we begin to see a person of great value. Indeed he has special needs that prevent him from functioning on his own, but we learn from Rain Man that Raymond Babbitt and others like him do have a place in society. One example of this was reported recently inThe Times of Israel, in an article explaining how theIsrael Defense Forces have recognized the special gift of persons with autism, and have found a way for them to make a valuable contribution to the defense of their nation. Yet even those who are not able to make such a contribution have value. They teach us about ourselves – what it means to be human. We are enriched when we get to know them.
Indeed, they are our neighbors, the very people we are to love as ourselves.
Consider the fragility of human existence. We survive within a specific set of environmental parameters – a fixed range of temperature, hydration, radiation, and atmospheric content. From a cosmic perspective the margin of error is very small; the slightest adjustment in even a single factor, such as the amount of oxygen, quickly moves the environment from pleasant to deadly. Yet we have learned how to venture into the realm of the deadly when necessary. Thanks to protective clothing, equipment, and protocols, our species can operate within the vacuum of space, in the ocean’s depths, in the radiation-charged atmosphere of a nuclear reactor, and in the hot zone of an infectious disease laboratory.
We venture into these deadly environments, but we do not live there. We cannot survive there without observing the strictest standards. Those who enter these realms understand this. Astronauts, deep sea explorers, nuclear engineers, and epidemiologists are professionals who have answered the call to highly specialized career fields. Not all who enter the paths of these professions advance to the point that they can operate confidently in the most dangerous places. The selection and training standards must be established at the highest possible levels for the simple reason that the slightest error can produce lethal results. Richard Preston explained this principle inThe Hot Zone, an investigative look into the origins of viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. We learn from his book that the protocols for entering, working in, and leaving an infectious disease lab are elaborate and time-consuming, but necessary. No amount of caution is excessive when microscopic killers can infiltrate through the tiniest puncture of a protective suit or escape through an improper seal of an airlock. The viruses create the hot zone, whether it is in the lab or in the human body. Because of the radical transformative nature of these microorganisms, the highly trained professionals who work with viruses like Ebola in a very real sense act as mediators between them and the general population.
In fact, the role of these professionals is not unlike the role of the Levitical priests.
The 1970 movie Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, follows the story of Jack Crabb, a white boy adopted by a Cheyenne warrior and raised among the Indians with the name Little Big Man. Jack spends his life moving between the very different worlds of his native white frontier people and his adopted Indian family. At one point, when he is back again among the Cheyenne, Jack takes a wife named Sunshine. The two live happily for a time, but then Sunshine persuades Jack to marry her three widowed sisters. Jack reluctantly agrees, and soon becomes head of a very large household. One day, as he wanders through the camp pondering his circumstances, he encounters an old enemy, the warrior Younger Bear whom he has inadvertently shamed many times. Thinking he at last has an advantage over Little Big Man, Younger Bear boasts, “I have a wife. And four horses.” Jack answers as if in a daze, “I have a horse . . . and four wives.” And with that absent-minded answer he once again shames Younger Bear.
Little Big Man is a satire, but oddly enough it echoes something from our ancient past. Our ancestor Jacob, like Jack Crabb, left the land of his birth to seek a wife among his distant relatives. He ended up taking four wives, shaming his wives’ kin, and coming home with far more than he anticipated. Jacob’s story, however, has much greater significance than the ribald satire of Little Big Man. His life is a continuous string of prophetic pictures illustrating what happens to us, his offspring.