He walked right up to me, shook my hand and welcomed me to the stadium. I was on a recruiting visit with my son at a large nationally ranked football program, and though we had never met him before, the record-setting starting quarterback was extremely friendly and generous with his pre-game time. A couple of his coaches and teammates also stopped by or waved my direction.
I’m sufficiently self-aware to recognize that my wheelchair, rather than my good looks, probably attracted the extra attention. I’m certain that I wasn’t mistaken as a recruit.
There was a time that I was ashamed to use my wheelchair – I can walk, after all – but using the chair has more than the obvious benefits, like moving comfortably and quickly to places that would otherwise be impossible. From that chair, I see incredible kindness in strangers – kindness that few people get to see, like that scene in the stadium.
People rush to open doors, to greet me and to ask if they can help in any way. Strangers have bought me drinks and insisted that I cut in line.
Despite the discord that captures headlines, using a wheelchair has shown me that most people genuinely care about others. Last month, I wrote about an awkward exchange with a stranger in a Las Vegas elevator, but that happens far less than the other side of the spectrum. More often, people go out of their way to be friendly and welcoming to me, and I truly appreciate that.
I’m still not completely comfortable in the chair, and only use it for longer distances or challenging terrain. On short walks, like into the gym or church, I walk unassisted. If it’s unfamiliar terrain, I use my “stick.” (I still can’t bring myself to call it a cane, and it really is a shooting stick that doubles as a walking stick.)
Physically though, I’m much more comfortable off my feet. When I’m on my feet and moving, my eyes focus on the ground in front of me, as I scan for slick spots or impediments that might knock me over. Because my attention is elsewhere, I can appear aloof and unapproachable when I’m walking, making it hard for me to notice strangers as much more than potential impediments. Most strangers react instinctively to my body language and give me space. The chair changes all of that.
Psychologically, I’m getting more comfortable using the chair when I have to, because I’ve learned that people are far less bothered by the chair than I am.
Ironically, I was more anxious in the chair in front of friends and family than in front of strangers. Walking around with a limp for nearly my entire life has numbed me to the stares of strangers. It was harder for me to succumb to the chair in the presence of people who have known me for years. It’s not like they didn’t know that I had a handicap, but it was important to me to show that I wasn’t that abnormal, especially to people who I have walked beside for years.. Hell, I hunted, skied, golfed and ran beside some of these people before the wear and tear of awkward movement made that impossible. I worried that somehow my relationships would change with the new limitations. Fortunately, using the chair has only improved my relationships.
For the last few years, I would skip games and other outings, because the walking they required made me uncomfortable during them and miserable afterward. I don’t have that problem in the chair, and my friends and family realize that and they are thankful that I was able to set my ego aside and ride. I have even relented and let some people push the chair. That was a big step for me, especially with my childhood friends with whom I used to compete for male dominance. None of have them have shown the discomfort I feared, and they all are eager to help.
Again, I’d much prefer a life without the occasional use of the chair, but that wasn’t the fate I was handed. Accepting that fate with a positive attitude has been rewarded with an enhanced feeling and appreciation of kindness that I otherwise wouldn’t have enjoyed.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be in a wheelchair to enjoy and spread kindness, but you might have to consciously participate. Just slow down and take the time to be kind and appreciate kindness. In short order, you’ll find that kindness requires little investment and pays huge dividends.