This week will be the 24th anniversary of my life as a quadriplegic. Of course, this disability carries a great deal of adversity. But it also has taught me some valuable lessons, one as recently as last month.
I drive an adapted van. Because I have difficulty with body control, I drive slower than most people – especially on windy days. Or if I am having problems with spasms or blood pressure, I will drive even slower, in the right-hand lane, well below the speed limit. And when I do, many people speed up to my car, blow their horns, drive by, stare at me angrily, and show me how long their fingers can get. I don’t understand why some people are so proud of the length of their fingers, but there are many things I don’t understand.
Nevertheless, when this happens to me, those angry drivers add stress to what already is a stressful experience of driving.
So last month as I was completing a lecture on a terribly windy day in Fort Washington, I was beginning to feel unwell. I was feeling increasing spasms in my legs and back and became anxious as I anticipated a difficult ride back to my office in Bala Cynwyd. Making matters worse, I knew I had to travel the Blue Route and the Schuylkill Expressway by myself and was feeling unsafe. I also knew that with the wind and my spasms, I would have to drive extremely slowly and would probably be hearing a lot of horns and seeing a lot of those long fingers.
I left my lecture and drove slowly on the back roads, and as someone approached, I pulled over and let them pass. But as I approached the Blue Route, I became more frightened.
And then I did something I had never done before.
For the first time in 24 years of driving, I decided to put on my flashers. I drove the Blue Route and Schuylkill at 35 m.p.h. Guess what happened? Nothing! No horns and no fingers. But why?
When I put on my flashers, I was saying to other drivers: “I have a problem here – I am vulnerable and doing the best I can.” And everyone understood. There were several people who wanted to pass and couldn’t because of traffic in the passing lane. They just waited, knowing the driver in front of them was in some way weak.
There is something about vulnerability that elicits compassion.
It is in our hard wiring. I see it every day when people help me by holding doors, pouring cream in my coffee, or with putting on my coat. Sometimes I feel sad because from my wheelchair perspective, I see the best in people. But those who appear strong and invulnerable typically are not exposed to the kindness I see daily.
All of us need care and compassion. Everyone needs people to be more patient with them. I know that our lives would be easier if we were exposed to the kind of patience and understanding I experienced that day on the Blue Route.
So what do we do when we feel vulnerable? Typically, when we feel weak, we pretend we are strong and when we feel scared we pretend we are not. So what does that behavior elicit in people? Not compassion.
That instinctive reaction to defend ourselves and pretend we are strong when we are not probably comes from our primitive brains. When we were on all fours, if we made our vulnerability public, we probably would have become somebody’s lunch. So it is instinct to pretend we are not vulnerable when we are. As a matter of fact, sometimes when we are vulnerable we get more reactive and more aggressive. Most acts of violence are a misguided attempt to manage one’s vulnerability.
Sure, it is animal instinct to protect ourselves and act strong when we feel vulnerable. But our job as humans is to rise above these animal instincts. The world might be a safer place if everyone who felt vulnerable wore flashers that said: “I have a problem and I’m doing the best I can. Please be patient.” And if when we saw someone moving slowly – on the road or in life – instead of showing them our fingers, we could visualize their blinkers and show them compassion.
I was recently told that the Hebrew word for wind is the same as for spirit. Who would have thought that on a windy day with my flashers on, I would have seen so much of the beauty of the human spirit?