I Am Sam is one of my favorite movies. In high school I dated a girl who I’m convinced only dated me just so she could see my impersonation of Sean Penn’s Sam whenever she wanted. It was really awkward and it didn’t last long. But my love for the movie remains.
It’s about a man with a developmental disorder who tries to raise a daughter alone. The problem arrives when she begins to grow old enough to surpass him on a developmental level. It is a bit of a sentimental morality play, but it has too many good moments to dismiss merely because it tries to convince us to believe in supporting a situation that is so borderline unfeasible it’s reckless: Are we really ok with a single father who has the development of a 7-year-old raising a child all on his own? But part of the question in the film is what it really means to be alone when you’re surrounded by people like you, and by people who care. And the entire soundtrack is Beatles covers.
Here’s one of my favorite scenes:
Sam has a group of friends who are also diffabled (differently abled—maybe so P.C. it’s absurd, but I still like it). They each have a different rationale for choosing shoes, though none of them are entirely appropriate or economical in the normal world. But they respect Lucy’s choice without fuss. Sometimes parents have a problem with that.
When it comes time to pay you can see the salesman is in an awkward bind. Maybe he can’t change the price just for this occasion, for these mentally and emotionally disabled men who just want to buy shoes for a little girl. Maybe you begin to think that he could have just said “this one’s on the house” and bought it for them, or at least paid the difference. Maybe you start thinking there should be a discount for disabled people, or that the government should give them shoe stamps, or whatever.
But then a solution presents itself. All on their own, Sam’s diffabled friends come up with the difference, out of their own pockets. Likely this is a sacrifice for them, as each of them carry a burden that keeps them from making the big bucks. But they come together and buy the shoes. Look at the salesman’s face. Yeah, that’s that android guy from Star Trek experiencing emotion. “There is a God.”
Today’ lesson: Even though we all know we should look out for the diffabled and take care of them, they’re not always as helpless and incapable as we may seem. Don’t ever underestimate what they are capable of, or look down on them, or feel sorry for them, when they can surprise us with their optimism, their ethic, and their regard for others. Sam may have trouble raising Lucy, but he has help from his buddies, his agoraphobic neighbor, his case worker, a foster parent candidate, and his pro bono lawyer who, though successful and intelligent, struggles with family problems and her busy schedule. When we see this professional, capable woman suffer distance from her son, pill her coffee, and yell at her voice-dial, we see a woman diffabled. As she herself says in defense of Sam, “Sometimes I feel retarded. Don’t we all.”
We all have times when we feel inadequate, incapable, stupid, stunted, restricted, retarded. We are all diffabled. And we all need diffabled people with us. We need to know we’re broken, and we need people who know they’re broken to be with us. Because if we only look at some people as “broken”, as “having something wrong with them”, we can’t really bring them in, and we’ll miss out on the fun too. That salesman was a little diffabled at first, taking his job too seriously and lacking that little optimism we all need. His exposure to this moment gives him something he might not have gained elsewhere.
If we’re all perfectly able to walk all our own, why do we shop for shoes? And why do we walk beside other people?
Come together. Right now. I get by with a little help from my friends.