What constitutes a beautiful mind?

Is it one that perceives sound, seamlessly tells skeletal muscles to move, or brings words to the mouth without an utterance of a stutter? Is a mind beautiful when it enables an artist to paint a masterpiece, compose a concerto, or write a best-seller? Is there beauty to be found in the calculations of an engineer, the discoveries of a scientist, or the convictions of a preacher?

I find myself confronted with these questions most often when I interact with people who have intellectual disabilities. I’m reminded of how much I personally love deep thought and reflection. I wonder what it would be like to experience life with a mind that works differently than my own. I am challenged with the desire to see the beauty that lies within intellectual limitation.

I remember the first time I met a child with severe autism. I watched him for a week during the summer as he struggled to cut paper with a scissors, interact with other children, and speak clearly. Usually, he moaned. I wasn’t sure how to interact with him until one day during snack time. He walked up to me silently and held out his Capri Sun and straw. I looked at him, understanding his predicament. “Do you need some help?” I asked. He silently nodded. I inserted the yellow tube into his drink and handed it back to him. Suddenly, he did something unexpected and wonderful—out of deep gratitude, he gave me a hug!

When I reflect on that encounter, I realize that a beautiful mind might simply be one that knows how to give and respond to love.

Sometimes when I interact with people who have intellectual disabilities, I feel like I catch glimpses of the freedom that can exist within intellectual constraint. When a mind can’t comprehend everything it should, it seems to focus on the simple matters in life—those that are most important. There’s one person I know with an intellectual disability who every time she sees me, makes a conscious effort to say hello, sometimes with words, sometimes with a wave. Her greetings have challenged me to reconsider my priorities, to slow down, and perhaps fill my mind with fewer thoughts—creating space to take in the humanity that surrounds me. After all, are there many things more important to notice than when one human being acknowledges another? This is the type of intellection that I find absolutely stunning!

What struck me most recently was an experience that I had this weekend. Some girl friends and I went to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children for a few hours on Saturday. It is fun for a while, but the reality is that the task of scooping chicken, soy, veggies, and rice rapidly becomes routine. My mind quickly started to wonder as I thought about how non-stimulating this task was and how, if I had a choice, I would rather be involved in the engineering team who developed the food recipe than the one packaging it. I’m getting my doctorate for Pete’s sake! I wanted to scream 45 minutes into our shift. I can do more than this! I ended up sealing bags of food next to a man who was cognitively delayed. He had come with his family and was given the job of stacking bags of food into piles until they were ready to be boxed. He couldn’t call out to the warehouse when the box was finished and I suspect he would have been overwhelmed at the task of scooping food—what he could do, he did with a smile.

The beauty of that man’s heart, mind, and motives far exceeded my own. He was working with all that he had to serve others with joy.

I want to leave you today by introducing you to another beautiful mind—Stephen Wiltshire.


Discussion Questions:

1. What do you think makes a mind beautiful?

2. How has interacting with others who have intellectual limitations challenged you or given you a new perspective?