From the outset of my consciousness as a human being, I’ve spent a good part of my time explaining myself to others. From inquisitive youngsters to curious retired doctors, it seems like I’ve performed my now perfected monologue thousands of times. The same questions always arise. What disease do you have? Can I catch it? Why can’t you walk? You talk funny, are you retarded? Are you going to die soon? Can they “fix” you?
Just recently, I discovered a hidden impact that these questions had on how I viewed myself. By constantly explaining and justifying my right to exist to others, I denied myself the opportunity to examine who I was from the inside out. Whenever I told someone that: I had academic achievement awards or that my brain injury only affected my fine motor skills and so on, I was explaining who I wasn’t instead of truly engaging them with honest conversation which would reveal my true self.
Because I was in perpetual defense mode I never participated in what’s referred to as “small talk.” While strangers who meet in the street typically discuss superficial topics like the weather or sports, I never mastered that skill. Like a Pavlovian archetype I always felt compelled to recite my monologue even when I’m not asked about my disability.
I used to waste so much time and energy just defending my value to a society whose value system is myopically focused upon a person’s physical appearance. If we assume that this cultural construct as a given, people like me stand no chance of making a positive first impression. So, one might wonder, if I already knew that I couldn’t change anything; why did I attempt to sway opinions of ordinary people who would probably forget who I was ten seconds later? Wouldn’t I be better off just dismissing such ignorance and putting all of my energies towards accomplishing goals which I’ve set for myself? In theory, this seems like a simple thing to do. Doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, the nature of my particular disability doesn’t afford me the option to become a hermit or shrug off other’s opinions. I depend upon a host of people from my caregiver to social workers and doctors. Moreover, having to rely on so many people for my very existence doesn’t afford me the luxury of adopting a private person’s mindset. I can’t be open-minded to one group and flip an “off” switch to the public at large. No one has that kind of mental discipline. You’re either open-minded or close-minded, optimistic or pessimistic, extroverted or introverted, liberal or conservative; personality traits are an all or nothing proposition. Whether I like it or not, I’ll always stand out in a crowd and be objectified. While I can’t control how others see me however, I can control how I see myself.
Lately, mostly due to my discovery of Buddhism and its teachings, I’m starting to find my inner self, my true being. Among other things, Buddhism teaches one how to clear away all of the “mind clutter” by focusing on the simple act of breathing during meditation and nothing else. Through practice, I’m developing an ability to see things as they are, taking both extremes hope and fear out of the equation. On the surface this philosophy may not appear to provide much spiritual comfort. However, viewing events stripped bare of their emotional packaging doesn’t allow me to recede into a victim’s comfort zone.
Instead of cursing the fates when adversity comes along, now I either take action to deal with it or decide to let it run its course with as little emotional investment possible. I’m finding a new calmness, as well as compassion for others, through looking at life from the inside out. So, who am I? Well, I no longer define my being by defending who I’m not. I have stopped acting like a PR representative for a corporate polluter.
I’m beginning to engage people in real conversations about mundane day-to-day stuff like weather and sports. However, every once in a while I catch myself starting to break into my monologue–bad habits are hard to break. Now, when a youngster asks me a question that I’ve heard 10,000 times I try to have compassion. While, I may have indeed answered that question 10,000 times, from his perspective he’s only asked it once. If part of my path is to be a conduit for knowledge and enlightenment, who am I to joust at windmills?