Essay: The Lame of the Earth
July 24, 2012 ·
Essayist Michael Blumenthal examines being sickly in his latest work, "The Lame of the Earth."
The world is largely the domain of the healthy in body and spirit; it is not necessarily a fun place for the sickly and the lame. Neither of these are conditions I can claim to know too much about, but, in recent years, I have at least learned something of them: I've had three surgeries in the three years since I've moved to West Virginia -- on my back, my hip, and, now, on my right Achilles tendon -- and have spent more time on crutches and in a wheelchair and with the assistance of a walker during that time than in all my previous life combined.
There is a big difference, as most of you know, between a condition that is temporary and one that is permanent: For the former, at least, there's a light at the end of a tunnel, a harbinger of better times ahead. Whether or not the philosopher Nietzsche was right about whatever doesn't kill us making us better, there isn't much we can't endure when we know that suffering will soon end. And suffering, at the very least, sometimes deepens our humility, and our capacity for empathy.
For years now, I've admired the man who enters the WVU Student Rec Center alone with his walker every morning at the same time I do, removes his prosthetic leg, and lowers himself into the swimming pool beside me.
Now, I admire him even more.
For myself, these months I've spent in recent years seated in wheelchairs and making my way with walkers have taught me at least one thing: that it's not an easy life for the handicapped and lame. Among the first, and most valuable, things to go is one's independence: One finds oneself dependent, not merely on the kindness of strangers, but even more deeply on the kindness of friends and loved ones. There's nothing like a few weeks in a wheelchair to teach you something about what the word "community" truly means.
"Your chance of rescue from any despair," wrote the late Reynolds Price, whom cancer of the spinal column left wheelchair-bound and without the use of most of his body, "lies, if it lies anywhere, in your eventual decision to abandon the deathwatch by the corpse of your old self and to search out a new inhabitable body."
This, it occurs to me, is exactly what the permanently lamed and handicapped must learn to do: abandon the deathwatch by the corpse of their old selves and search out a new inhabitable body. But, if my weeks and months of immobility and dependence have taught me anything, they have taught me this: their job isn't easy.
The handicapped -- despite a world that has grown progressively more aware of, and amenable to, their existence -- have their work cut out for them in a universe not exactly designed with them in mind. Steps, hills, curbs, stones, uneven pavement and inclement weather are but a few of the daily challenges they face ... not to mention keeping their spirits up and simply making it to work. In the world we know, the intact of body have, no pun intended, a real leg up at almost every turn.
I've been among the handicapped only a short time, and-- at least for now-I assume only temporarily. But it's been enough to teach me something of what they, on a daily basis and for the rest of their lives, must endure. They may not need our sympathy, but of one thing I'm entirely certain: they most certainly deserve our admiration.