Keeping Our Souls

by Matushka Valerie Zahirsky

Iceland has been in the news lately.  For one thing, it has been named by the World Happiness Report as the third happiest country in the world.  Only Norway and Denmark are even happier.

Two of the criteria by which countries are judged are national wealth per capita and perceived freedom from corruption in government and business.  Criteria more closely connected to personal life include having someone to count on, healthy years of life expectancy, perceived freedom to make life choices, and generosity as measured by charitable donations.

According to a BBC report, Iceland is notable for another reason.  Most pregnant women in the country are screened for the possibility of giving birth to a baby with Down syndrome.  The report states that of those who receive a positive diagnosis, 100 per cent opt for abortion.

There are those who believe that the happiest life is one that’s free of responsibility.  To raise a child born with Down syndrome certainly adds to the level of responsibility that already comes with being a parent.  Perhaps some soon-to-be parents in Iceland really believe they can more fully enjoy their happiness — their healthy life expectancy, freedom to make choices, and having someone to count on—if they remove the possibility of carrying that extra responsibility.

But it’s far more likely that the decision to abort is based on fear, acknowledged or not.  The fear of increased parental effort and stress, fear of being looked on as parents to be pitied, or fear of the way the world will treat a child who is “different” might lead to their decision.

An Icelandic photographer, Sigga Ella, has tried to dispel the fear by creating a series of colorful portraits of people with Down syndrome.  Some are adults, some are teens or children.  Their facial expressions range from broad smiles to calm gazes; some sit with legs splayed and heads cocked while others have both feet firmly on the floor and look straight ahead.  They are a cheerful, appealing group, and the photographer seems to ask, “Why wouldn’t you want one of these people as a member of your family?  What is there for you to fear?”

In the days leading to the Feast of the Resurrection, we will hear about many fearful people.  Fear will drive the apostle Peter to deny the Lord.  Fear leads Pilate to give Him up to the mob.  Fear causes the chosen men who have spent years in His company to abandon Him.

Like them, we all have our own various fears.  But the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls” [Hebrews 10: 39].  Our faith is in the One Who will help us carry every responsibility, and allay every fear.

Sigga Ella, the photographer, is hoping to inspire others to overcome fear of the people in her portraits.  If we can be portraits of a different kind — portraits of “those who have faith” no matter what life brings us — perhaps we can inspire others so that they and we can “keep our souls.”

Matushka Valerie Zahirsky chairs the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Christian Education.  She and her husband, Archpriest Michael Zahirsky, reside in Steubenville, OH.  She may be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).