The Crisis of Grace

Oh, You’ll Get Your Transformation

A few days ago, I continued my yearly tradition of sniffing my armpits, checking in at the office, and nervously entering my older son’s classroom to tell his life story. James had a few medical setbacks early in life and is autistic, and I wear black to these talks not because I’m in mourning about any of that but because kids are brutally honest and I tend to sweat buckets in such vulnerable situations. I started these talks four years ago, when James was in first grade and a classmate’s answer to the teacher’s question of “what are you grateful for?” was “that I’m not autistic.” So…anger is what started this. Incandescent maternal rage, even. Not bravery or strength.

A lot has changed since then. And a lot hasn’t.

What hasn’t changed: my nervousness, which becomes mixed with peace as I see pride and joy on James’s face. His classmates’ reactions: always supportive, always engaged, always affectionate with him during and after the talk. My relief that the story has been told for another year.

What has changed: the anger that prompted these talks transforming into an advocacy fueled by love. The content of the talks, growing more mature alongside the kids. And this year, being joined by a sidekick, our younger son who doubles as a comedian in his spare time, apparently.

I never expected to be a disability advocate because I never expected to have to deal with disability. Among the prayers I uttered while James grew in my belly, none included the word neurodiverse. When I wrote a research paper on autism during my postdoctoral pediatric dental training, I felt pity for the poor parents who had to endure the condition with their kids, not knowing how ill- and under-informed I and my paper were. When James was born over a decade ago and shattered my and my husband Jason’s pre-kid existence, we had no idea he’d be bringing spinal surgery and autism along for the ride. To be honest? I felt like a victim. I remained in denial for quite awhile. 

Then one night (okay, many), I cried out to God that he was awful to do this. And, over time, he reminded me of when I moved to New York, a decision born out of desperation and mistakes. That I met Jason there. He reminded me about the period prior to that, during that postdoctoral training, when my identity fell apart — when death gave way to life. And he, in beautiful and painful grace, opened the possibility to my heart that maybe love doesn’t always look like I’d imagined.

Maybe it’s bigger. Maybe it’s more. Maybe it’s more brutal and honest and searing than a room full of fifth-graders. And even more unexpectedly redemptive.

Neurodiverse people are not great with transitions, and neither am I. Perhaps that’s (definitely) why I still stubbornly cling to what I know, to what I can do on my own. But grace is stripping that away: it’s putting the dis- in front of my own ability. It’s cracking open the fortified walls of my heart and extending my own hard-fought boundaries, forcing me to question my own preset conditions and aggravatingly making me more curious, less certain. Oh, it’s enlarging my territory all right, but not in terms of power — in terms, rather, of all the lands I never thought I’d enter, all the marginalized I never thought I’d identify with. 

Worldly transitions are all about beauty and strength. Recently I stumbled upon a hashtag — apparently, it was #transformationtuesday — and got my fill of what transformation looks like on Instagram. God have mercy. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t begrudge anyone the right to change their appearance (personally, I’d kill for a necklift and some work around my C-section scar), but I hope that what people who haven’t seen me in a while would find unrecognizable about me isn’t due to surgery but to the painstaking beauty wrought by the soulful scalpel of grace: a trajectory from denial to acceptance with stops along the way at disempowerment, surrender, and true vulnerability. Most days I wonder if I’ll ever change, but now and then I’ll be caught in a moment of having my breath taken away by what grace has wrought in me: a counterintuitive willingness to embrace all that I once shunned.

Grace is removing my blindspots. It takes me from misunderstanding to…if not understanding, then at least a willingness to try to understand, and a wider lens than I was wearing before, and a rawer and more exposed way of living that hurts but also just feels, which is both awful and wonderful.

I was watching the documentary Recovery Boys recently, the story of heroin addicts living at a sober house in West Virginia. There was a time when I would have wondered why they couldn’t get their act together — I mean, how hard is it to just say no, right? Now, though, such easy dismissals aren’t readily available. I ended the movie shattered by how life is just hard for some people. Knowing a bit about that.

Grace isn’t a dash of eyeshadow or a wrinkle-free visage; it is disruption on a cellular level. Just as addiction changes a body’s chemistry (so do pregnancy and childbirth and parenting, by the way, when done wholeheartedly), grace alters the minutiae of my being down to microscopic levels. This is a fundamental reckoning, and it’s why I can’t hear a “grace, but” sermon without feeling either gaslit or enraged. In John 9, the story of the blind man who became the sighted one, one commentary says, “The mission of Jesus brought people to the point of crisis.” Oh, you’ll get your transformation, if you’ll have it. It just won’t look anything like you expected. 

Love often doesn’t.

Featured image by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

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3 responses to “The Crisis of Grace”

  1. […] Read the rest over at Mockingbird! […]

  2. […] one of the great memoirists I’ve been reading lately is Stephanie Phillips. Her recent “Crisis of Grace” blew me away.) As for Turkle’s book, reviewer Burke Nixon, writing for Commonweal, […]

  3. […] Stephanie Phillips talks to her sons class about autism: “Just as addiction changes a body’s chemistry (so do pregnancy and childbirth and parenting, by the way, when done wholeheartedly), grace alters the minutiae of my being down to microscopic levels.” […]

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