Op Ed II#
Killing the Cripple#
We are late-blooming lemmings. We wage war upon ourselves. Listen:
“There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve, then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving, and tiny blasts of tinny trumpets, we have met the enemy and not only may he be ours, he may be us.”
The enemy is us and is running on empty. The enemy is vulnerable and should be iced right now.
Everyone has hunch-shouldered days. I sometimes keep a low profile, thereby avoiding engagement of any kind, or perhaps I’m stupidly vulgar or vicious to other people. That’s pretty human. But it’s easy to use the fact of paralysis as a fictitious focus for our discontent …
To a stranger: Why are you looking at me that way? You’re not?
At a standup cocktail party, balancing a martini, admiring all the belt buckles at eye level and trying to make progress: Would you please let me through? No, you’re parked on my foot. That’s just before the hostess’s skirt gets tangled in your spokes and your drink spills in your lap.
As you’re jaywheeling across a busy street, a gust of wind blows several packages off your lap and down the street. Passerby: Can I help? NO! Can’t you see I’m uptight?
In a crowded elevator, an older woman has spotted you as a mark for a nice conversation, and you have spotted her and know beyond all doubt that she’s about to impart this information: I have a very dear friend who is in a wheelchair. RI-IGH-IGHT. It’s not nice to be sarcastic.
At the bank: Sir, is your wheelchair leaking? No comment. Oh, it’s your shoe! Didn’t hear that.
Five or six wheelers are in the basement catacombs of a hospital. There seems to be an uncalled-for amount of giggling, and conversation is punctuated by sharp intakes of breath, long pauses and explosive exhalations: Wow (intake, long pause), do you realize we’re all (exhale) in wheelchairs? Group breaks up in inexplicable laughter.
This last, the reductio ad absurdum approach, serves well when you’re loose enough. What could be more lovably ludicrous than a man in a wheelchair chasing a hound in heat? How do two wheelers travel in one car? Simple: driver transfers first, passenger places driver’s chair in trunk, transfers himself, loads his chair behind the front seat, then realizes he left the trunk open. How do you empty a leg bag on an airplane? Use the barf bag? Refill your Cutty Sark Minis? It’s not bad to play kick the cripple as long as you’re doing your own kicking.
I have never felt despised for being in a wheelchair. I have felt pitied; I have despised myself. The first is the other person’s problem and the second is mine.
I’ve had glorious days, days when everyone and everything I encounter dances to some tune I know well. On those days, confidence and good cheer flow out of me and infect total strangers. Little children leap spontaneously into my lap and their mothers don’t mind. Rainbows spring from manhole covers and the world is truly wondrous.
And on some days, the wheelchair becomes a rolling ghetto—a chrome cage that blocks communication absolutely. Period. Don’t bother me. I’m crippled today.
It seems possible that my body, my wheelchair and my social and physical environments are relative constants which cannot account for these changes. Damn ol’ elusive cripple —now you see him, now you don’t.
Some wheelers have dealt with their cripples as if they’d had a desperate tussle with the devil. One struggle and it’s done. The rest of us have to deal with him every day. It’s sort of a nuisance, but it’s good practice for making things good.
And when it’s good, it’s really good. These are the days when the cripple just lays over and dies. R.I.P. cripple. Bug off, cripple.
Years ago, Polly and I once cavorted on Hollywood Boulevard. We encountered a man with a wolf’s head, another with a brassiere over his ears and hundreds of lesser artists who flaunted their most bizarre fantasies on this warm weekend night. Exhilarated, caught up in the general freak-flow, we zipped through intersections, jumped curbs with incredible coordination and used the other actors (i.e., everyone) as slalom poles. At last we were accosted by a couple with radioactive brillo hair. Where did you get your act? they asked. That wheelchair, that curb routine? I pointed out the magic store east of Las Palmas, and they were off to buy next weekend’s fantasy.
If you don’t like trippy metaphysics, obscure speculation, philosophical pretensions and mythology, or if you feel that molehills are too often intellectualized into mountains, skip this section. There will be no quiz.
Here’s the thesis: Your injury is an epic thing. It reeks of mythic heroism. Wanna be a hero?
The fact is, you have little choice, but you might as well understand the process enough to do a little sightseeing along the way. Can’t tell the players without a program.
The general idea was first made apparent to me through a sampling of Carl Jung’s work, then very concretely by Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.* What follows is entirely informed by and indebted to these two men. The shortcomings are mine alone.
Psychologists and anthropologists have long talked about archetypes, the basic unconscious touchstones of the collective human psyche. These archetypes are real in every sense, since they are manifested with maddening consistency in the dreams, delusions, deleria, fantasies, fairy tales, religions and myths of virtually every culture both past and present. Because it is not the specific content of these manifestations which is consistent so much as basic form and repeated motifs, Campbell has used the word Monomyth to represent the whole grab bag. In examining the Monomyth, he finds a constantly emergent pattern which he calls the Hero’s Path. What’s more, he holds that if you can bring an understanding of this Path to a conscious level (since it’s already in the unconscious levels), then you can follow the path in your own mundane life, resolve all difficulties and live happily ever after in the knowledge that Osiris, Gilgamesh, Jonah and Theseus all were heros in spite of zits, warts and inferiority complexes.
*Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Meridian Books, The World Publishing Co., Cleveland, 1949.
I really don’t want to be flip about Campbell’s work. The stages in the Hero’s Path are not fairy tales, even though they may be found in fairy tales. There is something real and universal here, and if we can just find ourselves within the Monomyth, a lot of things make sense. Things like Why? Why me? and What next? all find a context. If we can see the context, recognizing the stages of the Path as we encounter them, then all the crummy details become pretty insignificant because they’re only minor variables in a universal pageant.
The first stage is Departure, an abrupt break in life as it was known. A significant event takes place (SCI might qualify), or in Campbell’s words, “The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for a passing of a threshold is at hand.”
Well congratulations and welcome, here you are already across the threshold and on your way. Campbell suggests that there is usually a refusal of the call to the Path, good news to shrinks who insist that denial is a prerequisite for successful rehabilitation: “The subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless.” He’s anxious, dissatisfied and feeling just as many of us have after our injuries.
The second stage of the cycle is Initiation, which can be seen as a ritual designed to allow the individual to die to the past in order to be reborn to the future. Adolescent circumcision, for example, along with its obvious Oedipal connotations, cuts the male child’s dependence upon his mother and invests him as a participating adult. Novitiates may wed Jesus Christ as consecration of a new life role. More generally, there is a radical severance from the attitudes, attachments and life patterns of the stage being left behind, usually accomplished by a series of trials set in the hero’s way. Odysseus had his sirens and moving rocks. The Twin Heroes of the Navajo had their clashing rocks, slashing reeds, tearing cactus and boiling sands. You have your involuntaries and blown externals, your spasticity, dysreflexia and decubiti. Sort of a filthy crew, to be sure, but heroic obstacles nonetheless.
The Initiation is concluded by an atonement, or at-one-ment. To take a theistic example, if God created man in His image, atonement consists of man recovering his Godhead, his universality. This is the rebirth. In more moderate terms, he is no longer a lost and lonely ego playing bumper cars with alien forces — he assumes and is assimilated by his real condition, which is humanity:
“In his life-forms, the individual is necessarily only a fraction and distortion of the total image of man. He is limited either as male or female; at any given period of his life he is again limited as child, youth, mature adult or ancient; furthermore, in his life-role he is necessarily specialized as craftsman, tradesman, servant or thief, priest, leader, wife, nun or harlot; he cannot be all. Hence the totality —the fullness of man—is not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole; the individual can only be an organ… If he presumes to cut himself off, either in deed or in thought and feeling, he only breaks connection with the source of his existence.”
The final act is the Return from the psychological equivalent of sidereal space, a reintegration with the world that was originally left behind. This life-enhancing act has special significance for all humanity because the hero’s passage has so faithfully enacted the Monomyth, so brightly illuminated the deepest wellsprings of our beliefs and existence.
So having died to a portion of the past, having passed through the fires of initiation and prevailed over all obstacles, the hero is ready to make visible his rebirth as a more complete being by returning to the world. Often, there is an initial refusal to return; ask any rehab counselor. The problem of the return is to knit together the two worlds; the one departed from and returned to, and the other world encountered during the journey. That, hero, is your task. Follow the Path.
We are the twice-born.
We represent to humanity its greatest fears of catastrophe and its greatest hopes of transcendence. We have embarked upon the Hero’s Path and we have no choice. Willy nilly, we will all become moral hygiene teachers.
To others, our transcendence is the proof of our heroic energy and direction. To ourselves, our energy and direction derive from the need to transcend because there’s no other way to survive.
If you got nothing to transcend, man, and woman, you’re nowhere.