Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Perspectives Redux

I've been so busy putting my forthcoming book of blogs together, I realized last night I hadn't had time to write one for today. So while I really don't like to cannibalize previous blogs here, I did come across one that rang a few bells I think could bear re-ringing. So, with your kind permission....

My friend Gary and I recently went down to Navy Pier to see the annual Flower Show. It’s a big event and attracts busloads of tourists. Navy Pier is, I understand, Chicago’s premier tourist attraction, jutting a half mile out into Lake Michigan. The south side of the pier is lined with cruise boats of varying sizes and impressiveness for excursions along Chicago’s spectacular shoreline and past the amazing architecture lining the Chicago River. On the north side of the pier, tour busses disgorge their passengers.

One or more of the tour busses brought a large number of severely handicapped children and teenagers. Gary and I were having lunch at one of the open-to-the-concourse restaurants, and I was just in the middle of bitching for the ten thousandth time about how incredibly brave I am to put up with the terrible burdens of not being able to open my mouth wide enough to eat a hamburger, or tilt my head back far enough to drain a can of soda, or having to wait for the waiter to bring my coffee before I could begin to eat, since I can’t swallow anything solid without being able to flush it down with liquid, and watching other people do with ease what I can no longer do, and…when a group of the handicapped kids came by, many in wheelchairs, with their surely-candidates-for-sainthood counselors and attendants.

And I was immediately once again thoroughly ashamed of myself for my unmitigated gall in assuming that the sun and moon revolve around me, and for focusing almost entirely on my own petty problems. We all know that old saw: “I had no shoes and I complained until I saw a man who had no feet,” yet like so many absolute truisms, I—like most people spared true physical and mental challenges do—tend to totally ignore it until something like seeing someone with real problems hits us in the gut. I try not to pity these people: pity is, I feel, a form of condescension, and I have no right to condescend to anyone. For some of them to get through a single day takes far more courage than I will ever possess. But I am truly sad for them.

When I lived in northern Wisconsin, I would frequently see a man with his young daughter, who was probably just entering her early teens. I don’t know what condition afflicted her, but while she could walk, she was severely physically and mentally limited. Yet her father was infinitely patient, and loving, and always had a smile. My heart ached for him, and her.

And I’ve often told the story of the middle-aged man who delivered newspapers to my mother’s work. He was, as the condescending euphemism puts it, “slow.” Yet he functioned, and held down a job, and would never, ever accept money from anyone, other than the price of the newspaper…and even then, he would not take the money unless the person offering took the paper. He was, Mom found out, the sole support of both himself and his own mother. One day, one of Mom’s co-workers was having a birthday, and had brought a cake. Everyone was in the coffee room when the paper man arrived, and they insisted he come join them for cake and coffee. He was truly delighted, and at one point he said, happily: “This is just like a party!” And I still can’t think of that without wanting to cry.

Life is a party. And most of us have far more presents than we ever acknowledge. We ignore that fact at the risk of losing our humanity.

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