Before I met one of my wife’s best friends more than twenty years ago, she was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to climb the stairs to her second-floor apartment. I later learned that she thought I was confined to a wheelchair, because Lynda had oversold my physical limitations when she had called earlier in the week. When I walked through the apartment door, I could see the relief and pleasant surprise in her friend’s face. I’ve always relished surprising people with what I can do. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen as often these days.
Now, it’s more common for me to see concern and pity, particularly when I take my wheelchair for a spin and encounter someone I haven’t seen in a while. This is one of the biggest reasons I resisted buying the wheelchair and continue to resist using it. I want to remain the guy who beats the odds and surprises people, not the poor guy in the wheelchair being pushed by his wife.
I completely understand the reactions I get when people see me in the chair for the first time, and though these reactions don’t offend me in any way, I do notice them. The first time it happened was earlier this year when I was in the airport waiting to catch a flight to Chicago for a speaking engagement. Waiting at the same gate was a client from my previous business. He and I had become friends, but hadn’t seen each other for several years. I could see his mind processing the scene in the brief moment between when we noticed each other and when we greeted each other. I imagine that it went like this, “Hey, that’s Mitch, but he’s in a wheelchair. Is that really Mitch in a wheelchair?”
It was the first time in months that I had used the wheelchair, but travel was one of the main reasons I bought the chair, so I was using it that day. I could have stood up and walked toward him, but we were getting ready to board, and doing so would have been inconvenient for my wife who was traveling with me and already burdened with a carry-on bag. Instead, we exchanged pleasantries, never addressing the “elephant in the room.”
Now that it’s football season, I pretty much use my wheelchair every Friday night, which means that I’m being pushed around in front of our community – our friends, our children’s friends and their parents. That’s pretty humbling, and I find myself wanting to wear a sign that says, “I’m riding now, but be in my gym at 8 am tomorrow morning to see me walk unassisted and push heavy weights.” Unfortunately, it’s more likely that the image of me in the chair will be what these people take home with them.
Context and Confidence
A few weeks ago, in the week before his first varsity football game, my son developed a large, ugly blister on his forehead near his hairline. It was likely caused by irritation from his football helmet. Whatever the cause, it caused him much anguish, as he worried about how others viewed him. As a guy who battled acne as a teenager, I could empathize, and I wanted to do everything I could to remove this challenge for him, but I couldn’t. All I could do was offer advice.
I told him that, in the grand scheme of things, the blister was but a minor, temporary inconvenience. School was going well. He had earned a starting spot for his first varsity football game, and he was enjoying a blossoming relationship with a nice young lady. Don’t let something so small as a blister rob that happiness from you, I told him, which turned out to be great advice for me too.
Most people are more supportive and understanding than we believe them to be. Their reactions might be instinctual, but the people who really matter see through whatever external flaws we fret over. In fact, I think we worry much too much about small things that we mistakenly think matter to others, and all of this worry sabotages our happiness.
Whether it is a wheelchair, blister or some other challenge, make sure that you put whatever is worrying you in its proper place, which is usually at the bottom of the Stuff that Matters list. Doing this will help you properly appreciate the blessings around you.