from “Letters to a Young Cripple” #6

Dear ________,

I have this vexing personal trait, one I’m not proud of, and it’s this: I tend to think highly of myself. This isn’t quite vanity, it’s too much a qualité douce—but certainly I’m unintimidated most of the time. There are variants of course—one minute I’m a bit of a prick, the next I’m sulking since I think I’m the most interesting person in the room and my wits are being sucked straight out of my eyes by people blabbing moist gossip and so I take many trips to the WC just so I can properly hold my head in my hands. King George V said: “always go to the bathroom when you have a chance,” but I suspect he meant it differently than I do. It’s the only place when you’re in a restaurant trapped with people having sub-Cartesian table talk.

Now boredom is an interesting topic since it gets at morality. As Bertrand Russell said: “Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.” I think highly of myself, dislike plodding speech, feel the itch of the damned when facing commonplace assumptions. If you want to be an activist you should know something about restiveness and irrationality. Otherwise you really are a prick. Thinking highly of yourself poses several dilemmas but this is the perhaps the most notable. God help us! The ordinary bugs me! Compassion fails! I want to jump out the window! But at least I know it. And I know what it means in ethical terms. I make choices and principle among them is the decision to not detest people. In a boring meeting? Work on your favorite chess problem. Recite to yourself a psalm or sonnet. Name all the players on the 1969 New York Mets. Just don’t do what I’ve done when my spirit has failed—don’t tell the poor sods what cattle they are—and trust me, as a crippled activist you’ll face colluders, quislings, prevaricators, and worse, and I’m merely saying, don’t let your outrage with the boring quotidian be your first move. I tell you I’ve made that mistake. As a blind child I was told I didn’t belong so often, so routinely, by so many boors that my half-sainted skin is pocked with the scars of custom and you better believe this is why I think highly of myself, for as of today I’ve never hit anyone, never kicked a dog, though I’ve slobbered and spit when confronted by meagre conventions and the unwritten rules of ableism. Yes! Think highly of yourself! Try like hell not to hate the unpleasant and despicable apparatchiks. When all else fails, tell them off. But don’t do it just because you’re stupefied.

Here concludes the sermon. Except for this. Disabled lives are in peril all over the world. Anger beats boredom but it seldom promotes effective change. Wits do. Crawling up the Capitol’s steps will do it. Standing up for those who don’t have voices or opportunities will always do it. But never contempt. Please don’t be like me when I’m weak and in a state of high offense. And then, stay unintimidated.

Will you forgive me if I end with a poem? This is by Sam Hamill, one of America’s finest poets and translators. The poem is really a sutra, not in the sense of summary, but something from the heart of Buddhist tradition. It speaks as all great poems do straight from the soul:

True Peace

Half broken on that smoky night,

hunched over sake in a serviceman’s dive

somewhere in Naha, Okinawa,

nearly fifty years ago,

I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks

who stopped the traffic on a downtown

thoroughfare

so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up

the lotus posture in the middle of the street.

And they baptized him there with gas

and kerosene, and he struck a match

and burst into flame.

That was June, nineteen-sixty-three,

and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine.

The master did not move, did not squirm,

he did not scream

in pain as his body was consumed.

Neither child nor yet a man,

I wondered to my Okinawan friend,

what can it possibly mean

to make such a sacrifice, to give one’s life

with such horror, but with dignity and conviction.

How can any man endure such pain

and never cry and never blink.

And my friend said simply, “Thich Quang Dúc

had achieved true peace.”

And I knew that night true peace

for me would never come.

Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world

is mine, mine to suffer in its grief.

Half a century later, I think

of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc,

revered as a bodhisattva now—his lifetime

building temples, teaching peace,

and of his death and the statement that it made.

Like Shelley’s, his heart refused to burn,

even when they burned his ashes once again

in the crematorium—his generous heart

turned magically to stone.

What is true peace, I cannot know.

A hundred wars have come and gone

as I’ve grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones.

Mine’s the heart that burns

today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.

Old master, old teacher,

what is it that I’ve learned?

—Sam Hamill

 

4 thoughts on “from “Letters to a Young Cripple” #6

  1. No apology necessary! I think the difficulties of disability are complex, and should never be simplified. I didn’t take your comment awry at all. I took you as a thoughtful reader. And you are!

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  2. I must apologize for the tone of my comment. I suppose I had my own agenda when I saw this series posted. I had hoped that there would be, alongside the harsh and grittier realities of living with a disability, some light offered, some encouragement. Surely, your life is not all toil and trouble. Surely the young crip does not need assistance in discovering that life can indeed suck. I just remember the words of one young man in Canada, post spinal cord injury. He was a young athlete, a skier. In talking to his doctor, the young man told him, “I was going to rock the world.” To which the doc replied, “Now you’re going to rock the world in a wheelchair.” The kid is now a champion mono-skier. I suppose I am naive in preferring to think that that sort of rhetoric is what drives people forward.

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  3. I’ve been reading these. I am not certain of the intent of the pieces. If they were to encourage and enlighten, I think the mark has been thoroughly missed. If they are meant to engender bitterness and anger, then, well done! Onward!

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