October 2017

Neighbours: the gateway to the human experience

Seventeen-year-old Eoin Garton writes about his experience growing up with a sibling who has “an extremely rare, severe disability that has no diagnosis”. The judges said Eoin “speaks with honesty, sensitivity and maturity about the cost and the blessings of ‘being a neighbour’ and ‘being neighboured’”.

BY Eoin Garton

I have been blessed with one of the most unique experiences of life. My older sister has an extremely rare, severe disability that has no diagnosis. Her name is Caoimhe. She cannot walk, nor talk, but, along with my parents, has taught me more about life, suffering and being human than any person I have known.

Caring for my sister hasn’t always been an easy experience. Over the years, I’ve felt a lot of guilt, asking myself questions like “Am I doing enough?”; however, although this is a negative mindset, it has also pushed me to become more determined, to work harder and to give everything my all.

Due to my older sister’s disability, I’ve also been forced into the role of “the eldest” and “the carer”. At times, it has placed enormous stress and pressure onto my life and the life of everybody in my family; however, consequently, we have all grown closer as a result. We understand that sometimes we need to rely on each other and the importance of building each other up.

In our society we are often tempted to label people and associate certain characteristics with them based on that label. Because of this, I used to be reluctant to discuss my life at home with any of my friends. I did not want my sister to be judged. She cannot talk or walk but she still has feelings. She may cry when in an unfamiliar environment, or when she is hungry, tired or thirsty. Though it can be difficult to understand what she wants because she communicates in different methods to most other people, I’ve learned to be more patient and tolerant. Most of all, I’ve learned to put away the labels, because as much as we say that the labels are based on statistics, they are more often a consensual agreement among members of society. Realistically, as human beings, we are all inherently different, and when we view everybody this way – these divisions in society fade away, and we become a family; a community of neighbours.

I’ve also learnt about how we should treat these neighbours. My parents told me that at day care one time, a boy snatched a toy from my sister’s hands. My sister couldn’t do anything about it. Later that day my parents had to come in because I punched him in the face to get the toy for her. If you’re reading this article, I’m very sorry for what I did! Though I realise that wasn’t the right way to resolve the issue, it shows that from an early age I’ve developed an idea of fair treatment, equality and respect.

So even though my circumstances have presented many challenges, I’ve had so many positive experiences and developed a stronger sense of character. This experience has shaped who I am and taught me so many little ideas about life and people.

One of the most important things is not to stress over miniscule things. My circumstances have clarified what is worth your emotional energy and what is not. If a movie is sold out, that’s okay. If my sister is in hospital, I have a problem.

I not only avoid stressing over the little things but embrace and relish them. My sister doesn’t smile or laugh very often, but when she does, it brings enormous joy to my life. I have learned to live in the moment and allow myself to feel certain ways. Accidents and mistakes will inevitably occur, but we can learn and move forward from them. Appreciating each moment for what it is, is one of life’s keys to happiness.

Undoubtedly, the greatest lesson I have learned is that true happiness comes from loving, giving and living. Some argue that they would rather die than live with a disability. They do not understand the gift of life that has been given to them. This is why we should relish every moment of everyday as if it was our last. Giving service and time to others is the most rewarding aspects of life. To see my sister smile makes me feel appreciated for the work I do. There is something special about helping others feel happy, and it is something I could do for the rest of my life. This is because giving and serving is a form of charity, a pure form of love – and to love is to live life to the full.

The real lesson of this reflection boils down to the fact that all of this – this fuller experience of life, came from one beautiful human being, who I am eternally grateful to. For if she wasn’t the way she is, I don’t have any idea who I would be now. My life has never been perfect – it came with suffering, feelings of isolation and a general sadness; but it also came with the opportunity to develop, grow, laugh, be grateful, serve and love – and this all came through connecting with one person. Isn’t it wonderful to think that anybody – just someone we pass on the street can make our lives fuller? Isn’t it even more wonderful to think that each of us has the potential to make someone else’s life fuller?

This is what it means to be a neighbour. A neighbour is somebody with whom we can share the full human experience. As humans, we suffer, but in sharing this suffering with each other there is an opportunity to connect, grow and love together. Our differences are opportunities. Parts of the people we meet become integrated into us. Because of my sister, my family has met incredibly supportive people and, I would like to think, become incredibly loving and supporting themselves.

By viewing everybody’s differences as being an opportunity for positive growth, we cannot choose to call some people neighbours, and some people not – we are all neighbours. Difference ought to be celebrated by one another, and what better way to celebrate by loving and serving anyone and everyone.

This article was highly commended in The Good Oil 2017 Young Writers’ Award, secondary student Years 10 to 12 category.

Eoin Garton

Eoin Garton is a Year 12 student and School Captain at St Francis Xavier College, Florey, in the ACT. He is outnumbered by three sisters, including one with disabilities. When not studying, Eoin is a carer, goes for walks, works in retail, convenes a Catholic youth group at his local parish, and tries to work out what he’ll be doing next year.

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