by John Elliot
I love life’s varied pursuits – flying, scuba diving, skiing, sailing, travel, archeology, hiking, producing videos and computing.
I enjoyed these besides being a husband and father and having a demanding career. Life held so many possibilities, so many activities, so many opportunities.
Pursuing an active life had been second nature to me. With my optimism, good health and eyesight and the many opportunities I had been blessed with, I found new challenges a normal part of life. One day I was responsible for several hundred people in a large region, the next I was disabled and replaced.
But things change
Today I live in a retirement community. This period of my life has brought limitations to my participation in many former activities.
I am not steady enough to fly now and problems with vertigo prevent me from scuba diving safely. Skiing causes trauma to a deteriorated back vertebra, as does carrying a rucksack.
I am not as steady at walking and exercise becomes impossible at times. Some days I have had trouble remembering obvious things, like my best friend’s name or the street I live on – and I am only 38.
Disabled (temporarily I hope) from whiplash in a car accident, I find my physical problems have steadily increased in intensity. They came upon me rapidly and at first I rejected them. I viewed them with contempt as I tried vigorously to fight them off.
My approach mimicked that of others I had seen who had fought encroaching limitations, like some who had been placed in old people’s homes, or friends who had become increasingly deaf or blind, or who had contracted a debilitating disease.
When limitations beset us, we often feel as though we are being drawn into a chasm from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Accident victims despair at the permanence of their physical handicaps. The elderly find it intolerable to lose the sharpness of the 5 senses.
Limitations are confused with lack of personal worth. It is hard to resist bitterness towards the hand life had dealt you. The thrill of former victories can transform into the agony of defeat.
The restrictions you find yourself under add to the trauma. These can be the end of a job. The loss of independently moving about and handling one’s affairs, the loss of the privilege to drive a vehicle and even the loss of personal bodily functions.
Now instead of extending helping hands, you are the recipient of helping hands. Your immediate reaction is to reject them, refusing to accept your restricted state.
How often I have heard the elderly and the disabled tell of their anguish over the limitations that gradually overtake them. I have always tried to be understanding of their plight. Now I am experiencing some of it.
Disability, if striking unexpectedly, whether from ageing, disease or accident, can be very unsettling. One moment you are reaching for the stars, then the earth falls away from under you.
Today, as I write, no boss calls to direct what I do or where I go. The pressing day’s activities have been replaced with endless quiet hours to fill.
It reminds me of the retired Navy admiral across the street. One day he directed policy from the top. The next, he was a retired private citizen. How rapid some changes can be.
The real problem
No matter what your limitation, there is only one real problem. Your attitude towards it. You can either be the ‘town grump’ over the disability you have or focus on all the limitations you do not have.
For instance, as the president of a deaf society says, ‘Deaf people can do anything, expect hear’. And, in effect, paraplegics can do anything, except walk; the blind can do anything, except see.
The same is true for you and me. We can do anything, except for the few limitations we have and they often are not totally restrictive. For instance, you are either reading or listening to a tape of this magazine right now.
That means you can pursue a degree or be a counselor to your grandchildren, a big brother to a parentless child, or a volunteer for special services.
A paraplegic has been president of the United States, quadriplegics have written valuable books, among other things. They just removed their biggest handicap – their attitude towards their disability.
Success became reality when they responded to challenges. You and I can too.
I may not be able to drive a car now, but others help me get where I need to go. I cannot work a 12-hour day now, but I can work one or 2 hours.
I may have difficulty with public speaking, but I can write. I am a better listener to others with problems and I have more compassion for and better understanding of the problems so many others face today.
A matter of focus
To focus on your own problems to the exclusion of others’ is destructive. Your condition can be so confounding, so frustrating that it occupies much of your thoughts. Too much in fact, causing you to ignore other important matters of life: interaction with family and friends, or benevolent actions to others facing crises, your personal and spiritual development and your enjoyment of life and the world around you.
I recently realized I had forgotten I was an avid flower gardener. For years I enjoyed raising annuals and perennials. In the frustration of my shackles, I have been too preoccupied to think of such an ‘unimportant’ hobby.
Last week, some blooms caught my eye and I realized I was overlooking some of life’s priorities. I had been overlooking other things too. And other people.
A burden to others?
‘I am just a burden to everyone now.’ Did you ever say that about yourself? We all feel that way sometimes.
Yet, I can tell you who are a burden – people who care only about themselves, or those who intentionally feed off the goodwill of others; or those who are ungrateful, complaining and selfish. Such are burdens to everyone irrespective of their state of health.
Not those elderly who have a story and a smile for children; not those in wheelchairs who help others have a better day; not my nearly deaf friend whose subordinates salute him for making their lives better at work. Nor the person who, even in blindness, added spark to a whole town. No, a giving person is a treasure.
Rather than look back at what we cannot do any more, how about finding things we can do? I am researching a master’s thesis in archaeology. I have taken up a new form of flying and I often try to fly between the radio masts on top of the Word Trade Centre, or under the Golden Gate Bridge. I usually crash, but I did make it once. I fly a computer flight simulator.
If we work around our limitations, life can still be full and rich with purpose and meaning. Life did not necessarily deal us an impossible hand. Oh, it may not be a royal flush, but that just adds to the challenge.
Something else you can do is show off a little. Show your wife or husband, your family, your neighbors what you can do. In so doing, show others an example of how to handle those limitations that eventually come to everybody.