Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Getting Back on Your Feet, Without a Leg to Stand On

Determination is inspirational, but true optimism is holy.

An example of both is Thomas Garber, who tells his own story in Newsweek:

I felt fine until I got home around 10:30, when my back began to ache. Neither a hot shower nor pain reliever brought any relief. By 11:15 the pain was so bad that my wife called 911. When the ambulance arrived, I stood up and walked over to the gurney. I have not been able to stand or walk since.

Five weeks later I returned to my home as a 48-year-old paraplegic.

Garber considered giving up. But with determination, he learns how to do everything again, including:

… You first learn how to sit up without passing out or falling over, because your center of gravity is so high and your blood pressure is so low (without any muscles contracting below the level of injury, there is nothing to pump the blood back to the heart). You discover how to use the restroom in ways that you never thought possible. You learn how to shave, shower, dress, and transfer to a wheelchair. You learn that negotiating curbs, sidewalks, and ramps is best in a wheelie position. You learn to drive a car using hand controls and spinner knobs, and bristle at the countless numbers of able-bodied individuals who insist on using handicapped parking spaces….

Garber’s story inspired me, and frankly, I can’t ever get enough of inspirational stories. Determination, courage and inner strength are qualities we all need to overcome obstacles. Life is tough, and the road to happiness requires true inner strength.

But what touches me the most about Garber’s story is his authentic optimism. Instead of cursing his shortcomings, Garber finds hope in appreciating what he has:

You remember the things you used to do and wonder if you'll ever be able to do them again. And just about the time that you're ready to give up, you look around and consider the needs of others who are even less fortunate. And you think to yourself, "You know, it could be worse."

I have learned that every day is a blessing, and an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.

Optimism is not founded on denial. It is not founded on naivete. It is rather founded on simple appreciation, the ability to be grateful for everything one has. True optimism is the ability to count one’s blessings.

And counting one’s blessings is of course a religious responsibility. The Talmud (Berachot
60b) reminds us how every moment we have to appreciate even the smallest aspects of our daily routine. The Talmud tells us how we are obliged to make a series of blessings in the morning, thanking God for all we are endowed with:

When he hears the cock crowing he should say: 'Blessed is He who has given to the cock understanding to distinguish between day and night'.

When he opens his eyes he should say: 'Blessed is He who opens the eyes of the blind'.

When he stretches himself and sits up he should say: 'Blessed is He who looseneth the bound'.

When he dresses he should say: 'Blessed is He who clothes the naked'.

When he draws himself up he should say: 'Blessed is He who raises the bowed'.

When he steps on to the ground he should say: 'Blessed is He who spread the earth on the waters'.

When he commences to walk he should say: Blessed is He who makes firm the steps of man'.

When he ties his shoes he should say: 'Blessed is He who has supplied all my wants'.

When he fastens his girdle, he should say: 'Blessed is He who girds Israel with might'.

When he spreads a kerchief over his head he should say: 'Blessed is He who crowns Israel with glory'.

But it’s not always easy to count one’s blessings. It is a battle to keep up an optimistic face, when all of a sudden, your list of blessings is a lot shorter. Under such circumstances, optimism is an act of faith, the ability to find the good in God’s creation.

Or, as someone once explained to Garber:

“Sorrow looks behind. Worry looks around. Faith looks up."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Don’t Sell People Short

You can encapsulate Judaism’s teachings on disabilities into one simple commandment:

Don’t sell people short.

This idea is expressed most directly in the first chapter of the Bible, which declares:

“And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him”. (Gen. 1:2)

The Bible doesn’t hold back when describing humanity; it says that every person is a reflection of God. Like God, we are all endowed with creativity and spirituality. It is therefore our religious responsibility to appreciate the infinite in every human being, no matter what their physical limitations may be.

It is our religious responsibility not to sell people short.

It is easy to sell people short. The dangerous phrase “quality of life” is now misused to rationalize pulling the plug on the elderly and infirm, because their care has become too complicated. Even worse, the idea that one must have a certain “quality of life” has led to the romanticization of suicide, seducing people with serious illnesses to give up hope and “die with dignity”.

We repeat the mantra of ‘quality of life’ until we are confronted with evidence of the infinite soul that lurks behind physical limitations. The recently released movie “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist. Bauby is afflicted with Locked-In Syndrome, a condition that leaves him totally immobilized, with only the slightest control over his left eyelid. Yet even in this condition, he writes a powerful and inspirational book, by blinking his eye to an assistant. (It took an average of 2 minutes to blink each word).

While Bauby’s story is exceptional, it teaches a universal lesson: life is sacred. It is easy to consider Bauby, a young man who suddenly finds himself completely paralyzed, a pitiful being who is better off dead. Yet Bauby’s memoir reminds us of the infinite value of life, and that a being created in the image of God should never be underestimated.

For too long, we have sold people with disabilities short. Generations of people with disabilities were marginalized and ignored. For hundreds of years, the deaf were assumed to be ineducable, until Charles-Michel de l'Épée systematized sign language and opened a school for the deaf in 1755. His innovation allowed the deaf to receive proper educations, to succeed and excel. Similar innovations such as braille, prosthetics and special education strategies have transformed lives, and allowed people to more fully express their image of God.

I am extremely hurt when religious communities fail the disabled. Schools and institutions, more interested in avoiding inconvenience than in embracing challenges, give the disabled the run around. I understand why parents and advocates feel so let down when this happens; it’s forbidden for us to sell people short.

Yet at the same time, I can see inspiration everywhere. I am inspired by the parents and teachers who devote their lives to helping disabled children reach their potential. With patience, effort and creativity, they refuse to sell people short. Their efforts truly embrace the imperative of respecting everyone as beings created in the image of God.

I am even more inspired by the disabled themselves. They have to keep trying, in the face of profound challenges. They have to deal with prejudice and discrimination. But even more significantly, the spirit they bring to the world inspires us to remember the soul we all have inside. Love is the language of the soul. No matter what a person’s disabilities may be, their image of God shines through every time they give us a caring glance, a simple hug or a beaming smile.

And it’s in those moments we remember how important it is to appreciate every human being, and to never, ever sell people short.

(The previous article is set to appear in Exceptional Family, a magazine for parents of exceptional children, which is edited by a member of our synagogue, Aviva Engel.)