The other day, I had a ridiculous conversation. A man approached me for the sole purpose of telling me that he had a “special needs child,” as he kept calling him, and that as such, he totally connected with me on a deeper level than anyone else. The full transcript isn’t important; all you need to know is that I use a wheelchair, his son has autism, and he’s certain that those facts give him permission to ask me a lot of personal questions and presume that we’re going to be best buds.
I spent most of the conversation thinking, Man, this is going to be a fantastic story for my blog. What a jackass. I imagined a long rant during which I could point out all of the idiotic things Jackass said, but one of his remarks actually shifted my focus to my own attitude.
Toward the end of our conversation (thank goodness), he said, “Sometimes, my son feels bad about being different, and wants to know, ‘Why me?’ I just tell him to remember that there’s always someone who’s worse off than you are.” Then he pointed at me: “Like you!”
What? “I perceive your life to be harder than mine, so I feel great!” That’s ludicrous and sad. I think that’s actually Chapter One of How to Hate Your Life: A Manual.
Don’t go looking for that book. It doesn’t exist. I hope.
My new friend’s comment about me being worse off than his kid really bummed me out, so I took some time to think about it. I realized that I don’t like being considered the one whose perceived misfortune makes another person feel better about theirs. It makes me feel pathetic.
We’ve all done that, right? Used someone else’s supposedly undesirable circumstances as a coping mechanism, a way to minimize our own? I know I have. I think I’ve actually identified a handful of coping strategies that I’ve used to feel OK about having a disability, and it has occurred to me that most of them really aren’t that healthy.
I’m the same as everyone else!
Yeah, kind of, but not. When I was really young, I spoke enthusiastically about how I was just a regular kid, and my disability just meant that I walked funny and had to be carried or pushed in a wheelchair sometimes. I skimmed over the parts about getting excluded at recess, having painful surgeries with long recoveries, and the strain on my family.
I’ve since come to the conclusion that I learned when I was very young that I got a lot of attention for being upbeat. I was constantly told how inspirational my positive attitude was and it gave me opportunities to be in the spotlight all the time. I love the spotlight. In my attempt to remain in it and keep people around me from being uncomfortable, I accidentally avoided a lot of really important issues.
But, the perks!
In middle school, my world revolved around amusement parks, football games, and my wheelchair basketball team. At my favorite amusement park, I could skip all the lines and ride twice — that still gets me excited, so you can imagine my enthusiasm as a 12 year old. The hospital where I had my surgeries occasionally sent us to Vikings and Twins games and put us in box seats with free food, and sometimes we even got to go on the field before the game. My wheelchair basketball team had to travel frequently for tournaments, which meant I missed some Fridays and Mondays at school and got to hang out with some of my best friends for weekends at a time.
Perks, am I right? (For anyone who might get hot and bothered about my use of the word “perks,” I say it facetiously.)
In 7th grade, I was chosen as Student of the Month by a public television station, and when the interviewer asked me what kept my attitude so positive, the answer was easy: “I get to go to the front of the line at ValleyFair! I wouldn’t trade that for anything!”
Excuse me while I spank my 12 year old self.
Higher purpose, greater perspective.
As I evolved emotionally, I started to assign meaning to my life with a disability. I believed, and still do, that I get opportunities to know people in a way that others don’t because of my perspective. I also know that I have the chance to inspire all different kinds of people to punch adversity in the face.
I experience life in a different way than the average person, and in some ways, that’s really not a bad thing. I learned early on that struggle is normal, and I’d say that that’s a valuable lesson for a person to learn, especially a child, so in that regard (among many others), I consider myself fortunate.
Someone is always worse off.
This was always a tag-on to my above responses. “I get to go on the field at Vikings games! What’s not to like? Plus, someone else is always worse off. When I get depressed, I try to remember that.”
Having become someone else’s baseline for misery, I think I’ll knock that one off my list. It’s actually kind of morbid to think that knowing that someone else is starving when I’m just hungry can make me feel better. I know that the intention is to bring to light the things I can be thankful for, but consciously or not, when I do that, I’m riding the wake of another person’s hardship, rather than just being grateful for what I have on its own merits.
What does it say about me if I can’t be satisfied without comparing my life to someone else’s? It’s a recipe for unhappiness, and it strips the dignity from the target. I feel pretty good about my place in the world, and it hurts to hear that someone else sees it as so undesirable that it makes him feel better about his own situation, which he thinks is pretty crappy.
Instead, I say, resort to laughter and celebration. There’s nothing like a self deprecating joke or the celebration of uniqueness to bring perspective. Base contentment and satisfaction on relationships, goals accomplished, and big plans. If I’m always comparing myself to others, I either feel better because they’re worse, worse because they’re better, or competitive because we’re “equal.” How awful.
I spend a lot of time shaking my head at things people say to me because of my disability, but this time around, I ended up shaking my head at myself. It was kind of refreshing, actually.
Today, I’m grateful for the opportunities to learn and be humbled that I have because I’m so much “worse off.”
But seriously, don’t say crap like that to a stranger. It’s weird.