Rome, Italy — I left the country the other day, and ever since I logged on across the pond, the talk of Facebook seems to be the new algorithms that limit the number of people you see on your news feed. But with all due respect to all the people I am missing, I can handle what I’ve been seeing most: nonstop images and videos of the new Gerber baby, Lucas Warren. He has Down syndrome, and with his smiling face he says more about life and love and hope than any words ever put together.
The Gerber-baby logo has existed since the 1920s, but the company introduced its annual photo contest in 2010. Lucas was one of 140,00 entrants this year, from Georgia. His mother, Cortney, told the Today Show that “he’s very outgoing and never meets a stranger.” And: “He loves to play, loves to laugh, and loves to make other people laugh.”
This little one’s smile seems instantaneous and contagious. It’s hard, knowing the hardship the world might see for him, not to look at him and think of all the pain he alleviates with one smile. It’s as if his message to the world is: Lighten up and love already! That’s my approach! I’m enjoying it! You should try it.
He has no idea how the world looks on him. That there are countries that would have had him eliminated before he had the chance to live. A few weeks ago I talked to Patricia Heaton, an actress in the ABC prime-time family series The Middle, who has been outspoken about the human rights of people with Down syndrome. Last summer she quickly rose to the role of fact-checker on Twitter in response to a news story about Iceland “eliminating” Down syndrome. As she told me in an interview for Angelus magazine: “They are not eliminating Down syndrome — you would have to have some kind of genetic maneuver in order to eliminate Down syndrome. What they are doing is eliminating people who happen to have Down syndrome. It’s a very different prospect. . . . We have to start telling the truth about what is happening, and not try to use semantics to deceive or sugarcoat what’s happening.”
She told me how the first time she was pregnant, her doctor urged some prenatal blood testing and it showed her first-born might have Down syndrome. As she faced all the emotions a mother naturally would, she says that she started thinking about Down syndrome on a spectrum: “When God looks down on all of us, we all fall short of perfection.” We all have our struggles, “we all have our things. . . . So my kid might not be so great at math. . . . I had to take my driver’s test three times because I couldn’t parallel park. We all have our issues.” Heaton is quick to say we cannot “sugarcoat” the challenges of disabilities — that she understands the fears — but insists we have to start looking at people as people. “The severity of the effect of Down syndrome on people can vary, so you’ll have people with Down syndrome who are very high-functioning. And then there are people who don’t have Down syndrome but are autistic, some can’t speak.” Let’s be honest about suffering, and help people.
As Heaton said to me:
I feel that along with standing up for the right of disabled people to be born, we have to focus also on support for families who have family members with disabilities. . . . We need to have more programs — whether they’re funded by state or federal programs, or whether it’s charitable programs, or the community does it . . . to integrate people with disabilities into the community, and to make sure . . . families get the support that they need, because it is more difficult for some families, depending on the level of disability, and the intensity of the disability. I know as a mother of four healthy boys with no apparent disabilities, that it’s very hard to raise your kids. Hard in the sense that it takes a lot of energy, and there’s a lot of balls to keep in the air. If you add the disability onto that, it’s even more so. If we are going to be champions of people with disabilities, we also need to be champions of the support systems that need to be around them and their families.
Looking in the eyes of Lucas, we might see a better way to live.
While the Gerber Spokesbaby slot is on the surface an advertisement for baby food, it can be so much more this year. Looking in the eyes of Lucas, we might see a better way to live. One free of some of the anxieties that hold us back in life from freely living and loving. I’m yards away from Pope Francis as I arrive here, and am reminded he often talks about the need for a “revolution of tenderness.” Over the weekend, as it happens, he delivered a message while holding the hand of a little girl who ran up to greet this spiritual father.
If these children don’t play starring roles in such a revolution, I don’t know its face. So thank you, Gerber and Facebook’s algorithms, for putting Lucas front and center. His is just the leavening smile for the times.