The Wonder Years and the Still-Growing-Up Church

Kevin Arnold. Winnie Cooper. Paul, Wayne and Karen, Jack and Norma. 60’s music, lots of narration, vintage filters galore. If there is one word to sum up the late 80’s/early 90’s tv show “The Wonder Years,” it would have to be ‘poignant.’ Each episode follows the life of young Kevin, who starts as a 12 year old kid in 1968, from his first kiss (more on that later) to his first car, with unrequited love, struggles in the classroom, tension between his conservative father and liberal sister, and financial issues strewn throughout a story arc of finding one’s place in the midst of massive personal and global change. Kevin deals with growing up in a family that he slowly understands to have full lives of their own – witnessing his championed father be demeaned at work, watching his free spirit sister be crushed by a cheating boyfriend, and seeing small breakdowns from his mother exposing chinks in the armor.

The narration of “The Wonder Years” is kept the show so engaging for so long. With Daniel Stern’s voice earnestly reflecting back on what it meant to be so in love that you ask out a different girl just to sit at the same table in the cafeteria, or why it mattered that Paul never collected baseballs cards anymore, viewers were given an inside look at adolescence the way most of us wished we had it; the long-term perspective draws out the inherent meaning of the seemingly mundane, reminding us that what we take from our childhoods is often the powerful emotions felt when we lose something of ourselves. As the show grew up, so did Kevin, and though the world of the show grew with it, there was also a sense of poignant loss that a childhood was ending, never to be reclaimed.

One of the biggest complaints lodged at the show came at it’s conclusion. For 6 seasons, Kevin longs for Winnie, fights for her attention, dreams of her, gives himself over to her, and, with the culminating final episode… wistfully reminds us that our childhood dreams often don’t come true. Executive Producer Bob Brush ultimately explained the somewhat harsh ending by saying, “the message I wanted in there is that that’s part of the beauty of life. It’s fine to say, ‘I’d like everything to be just the way it was when I was 15 and I was happy,’ but it seemed more nurturing to me to say that we leave these things behind and we go on to forge new lives for ourselves.” What we leave behind often seems like a net loss for us, but a key moment in that iconic, final narration drives home a point that I’ve long felt about disability studies.

At the end of the series, despite a romantic romp in barn to escape the rain (how many cliches can I fit into one sentence?), Kevin begins to explain what happened to all the important people in his life. Wayne takes over the furniture business, Karen becomes a mother, and Winnie goes off to study Art History in Paris. When she returns, Kevin meets her in the airport – with his wife and young son.

All things change. And in that change, there is often loss. Broken promises, earnest beliefs that can never be resurrected, the willingness to wonder and imagine with more abandon than we often allow ourselves as adults. And yet, in the midst of the bitterness that change brings, we sometimes forget the good. While viewers complained about Kevin and Winnie, they forgot that Kevin had a family of his own – ostensibly, a good one, filled with the love and affection we always assumed would stay between him and his first love. The power of the “The Wonder Years” was yes, in the remembering of how many of my parents’ generation was raised, but more so in the acknowledgement that the loss itself can be a good thing. That knowing that we must leave certain things behind to go and forge new life is inherently a wonderful thing, even in the midst of sadness.

There is a popular story, often given to parents of children diagnosed with disabilities, about taking a life-long dream vacation to Italy. But instead of the plane taking you to the Tuscan villa you’ve always envisioned, you are rerouted to Holland. The dream of a lifetime, shattered, trust and hope lost. Yet, Holland has many beautiful places to bear witness to – windmills, tulips, architecture. Families are given this story to remind them that they have not lost their dream, they’ve simply got to change the specifics.

St. Augustine, the famed church father, believed that those with disabilities were special markers of God’s power. That their presence was a symbol to the world that God was strong enough to care for a diversity of human needs. Perhaps his language and beliefs were shaded with the problematic valorization that plagues many of our disabled friends still today (i.e. “oh, she’s such a perfect and sweet little angel! I bet that God loves her so much more because she’s incapable of sin.” – ever heard something like that lobbed at a parent of a child with disabilities? Ask a parent if you haven’t – they have, trust me.). But perhaps, too, St. Augustine should be taken at closer-to-face value.

Life is a messy business. Things are constantly changing, lives are being disrupted, beliefs shattered, trust lost, hope deferred. We believe all too often that what we grow up with is all that can make us happy. That a particular bedroom holds a missing part of ourselves. That what we had as a child is what we are supposed to have. But then, as Kevin summarizes in that finale, “things never turn out exactly the way you planned.” To me, the presence of disabilities means many, many things (theological, social, personal). But one thing that we may be missing in the meaning of disability is that same thing we miss when we mourn for Kevin’s relationship with Winnie – our expectations shield us from the good we actually have. Expecting a child without Down Syndrome prevents us from seeing the joy in the eyes of someone with Trisomy 21. Expecting a church without people who use wheelchairs prevents us from seeing the beauty of someone dancing without needing their legs. Expecting a faith that doesn’t include those with disabilities prevents us from seeing that the Kingdom of God is far wider and far bigger than we could ever imagine.

Loss can be a good thing. We need to feel that poignant bittersweetness sometimes. It is part of the human experience. And that loss opens us up to experiencing a new and better reality, one with more depth and implicit poetry because we have expanded ourselves. Let’s start to lose the ableism within our churches. Let’s allow ourselves the grace to be saddened that our naive beliefs about where the walls of the Kingdom are drawn have been shattered. Let’s be mindful that we are still growing up. And let’s begin to anticipate the wonder that is coming our way when we begin to live into the bigger, better world together.

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