I have had people—spiritual people and well-meaning people—say to me, “I just feel so bad for you” “I feel sad for you” “I feel so sorry for you.” The first couple times it happened I was too stunned to say anything but, “Why?” During my sarcastic years, my angry response to pity was “So you feel bad/sad/sorry because I have a house and a car and two great kids and a successful career?” (Yes, I believe a life well lived is the best revenge.) Responses to my sarcastic retort helped me see that the mind that formed the original statement could not fathom the sarcasm in my response. At this point I have come to believe that perhaps it is just a big misunderstanding.
When people believe they would be unhappy living with my disability, they assume that I am unhappy with my life. We often devalue what is outside our zone of familiarity. One of the benefits of travel is the opportunity to experience different environments and cultures in which people find happiness. Our discoveries, however, require us to leave our expectations and assumptions at home. People live in houses with dirt floors and drink warm beer and never travel more than five miles from home and are happy even if those are not in our comfort zone.
Surprisingly enough, I do not cry myself to sleep at night because I am not five feet tall; nor do I wake disappointed that I am not “healed” into a growth spurt. Are there times when I wish the world was designed differently? Absolutely! Do I envy people whose bodies do things that mine does not? No, not really. How would you live this life? Neither of us really knows.
A disturbing survey recently revealed that those entrusted with our healthcare are among those who devalue the lives of people with disabilities. “A new survey of U.S. doctors finds that more than 80% believe people with a significant disability have a worse quality of life than those who are not disabled, underscoring how physicians’ perceptions across specialties could negatively influence the care of the more than 61 million Americans with disabilities.” (https://khn.org/morning-breakout/physician-bias-against-people-with-disabilities-or-obesity-gains-attention/, 2.2.2021
I mentioned spiritual people have made statements to me. The inference I hear is that people with average bodies which function differently than mine are somehow spiritually superior or better able to connect with a higher power which might be a source of healing. Pity always comes from a place of superiority and shame comes from a place of inferiority. I mostly have no shame about my physical vessel, and I endeavor not to pity others. What if no one was superior and no one was inferior? In our world of duality, many people find this incomprehensible. Even when we say, “All people are equal”, if you place a photo of a visibly disabled person along side a person dressed nicely and without a visible disability and ask which is superior, I am guessing at least 95% of people will select the non-disabled person as superior. Most cultures have a bias against disability which results in devaluing the lives of disabled people. Often that bias is actualized into limiting resources for people with disabilities. Physicians, employers, housing managers, and spiritual leaders impact the lives of people with disabilities. Bias shows up intentionally or unintentionally in how they serve others.
How do we begin to overcome this bias against believing people with disabilities can love their lives and stop saying stupid things to people with disabilities?
First, we might begin with the premise that life is precious. This is not a “when does life begin” debate or debate about the pros and cons of abortion. Let’s content ourselves with the big enough bite that considers “life brought forth into earthly existence”. Every expression is a celebration. Try to bring to mind all the expressions of life you feel are sad, bad, worthy of pity. What if you are wrong? Breathe into letting go of your superiority. Breathe into the shock that I just implied your pity means you are feeling superior.
Second, make a list of the things you value in your life. Now consider that some of the things on your list are also on the lists of other people, including people with disabilities and other people may have things not on your list. Life is messy and glorious and filled with infinite possibilities. If your list is short, breathe into a new sense of gratitude for your life. Expand your awareness of the gifts in your life. Be ok with your list. My sarcastic list was what felt like my values in my 40’s and 50’s. I’m retired. My mobility is impacted and I no longer maintain a house. My list changes, and my life remains valuable and precious to me. My daughter does not drive a car and while that is inconvenient, it does not diminish her love of life (my daughter gave permission and affirmation for this statement; my son doesn’t drive but has a harder time understanding and communicating abstract concepts so I am not presuming to speak for him).
Third, notice how you view your own and other’s humanity as a series of pluses and minuses. There is an exercise in awareness around privilege and oppression that invites you to take a step forward if you have various privileged characteristics. The object is to make apparent the way our characteristics are valued by our social/legal system and that some people appear to be ahead of others. When we internalize this series of pluses and minuses, we begin to see ourselves as more than or less than others. This can lead to some unhelpful behaviors: envying others; arrogance; resentment; pity. A level playing field in social justice and spiritual unity allows everyone to live free of pluses or minuses. We can only get to a level playing field by beginning to experience it ourselves and becoming aware of our internalized pluses and minuses.
Fourth, when you have the opportunity, engage in meaningful connections with people with disabilities without the assumptions you might usually come into the conversation with. Even people with disabilities have assumptions about different disabilities. Instead of your usual thoughts, assume this other person loves their life; assume they have a gratitude list which may or may not match yours; assume they have interesting dreams and ordinary fears. Begin to notice moments in which you feel superior or inferior to others. What is that about? Take time to reflect on Radical Wholeness in you and in other people. Do you judge your/their spiritual life based on your/their physical expression and life experiences? What if that judgment were not true? I do not experience my spiritual life as either lacking or superior to those with different physical, mental and emotional experiences. I am not a martyr nor a guru nor a failure. I am just me, living my one wild and precious life the best way I can. What if we could understand that and support that in everyone?
Image Description: Garden flag is sitting on concrete floor with heart shaped flowers in red with green earth and blue sky in background, kissing birds on top of the center heart and the words Love One Another. A pot of purple pansies is to the left at the bottom and a pot of yellow pansies to the right. White rails and green leaves in the background.