Robert A. Jonas
[Reprinted in part from the Daily Hampshire GAZETTE, Monday, March 19, 2018]
The great spelunker of our universe, physicist Stephen Hawking, died on March 14.
I never met Stephen, but when I was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1980s, I often saw him coming and going from his apartment across the street. Someone, perhaps his wife, Jane Wilde, drove the van that opened out to reveal a lift that raised and lowered his wheelchair.
I had a vague knowledge of Stephen’s mathematical study of the origin and interstellar dynamics of the cosmos, but I didn’t yet fully appreciate the magnificence of his research, his personal courage, or his will to live.
At first, I couldn’t understand how someone could be so brilliant and yet so physically wounded and apparently incapacitated. How could someone with such a severe disability also be a Harvard professor and a world-renowned physicist? Eventually I came to understand that one can be wounded in some respects and a majestic human being in others.
Perhaps Stephen is why I chose to override the advice of my professors and to do my clinical internship in psychology at Wrentham State School, helping the dedicated staff to see the gifts of residents with physical or mental disabilities and to create a loving community with them.
A few years later I met Father Henri Nouwen, a Harvard Divinity School professor who had just begun his association with the L’Arche communities in France and Toronto for people with handicaps. Henri had recently published his now classic book, “The Wounded Healer,” and eventually left academic life to minister to people with disabilities. He understood that our greatest gifts can arise from our wounded places.